Bring them back

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Bring them back

 In an alarming development, a South Korean-flagged tanker was detained in a harbor in Iran after being seized by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) earlier this week. Aboard the cargo ship were 20 crew members, including five Korean nationals, 11 Burmese, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese. The Moon Jae-in administration must do its best to have the ship freed and its crew released as soon as possible by mobilizing all diplomatic capability.

The government must first find why the IRGC seized the ship. The Iranian military said the vessel, dubbed MT Hankuk Chemi, “repeatedly violated maritime environmental rules of Iran.” The IRGC said it took the action after receiving requests from the port authority and the prosecution to see if the tanker carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol committed massive maritime pollution in the Straight of Hormuz. If the Iranian military’s explanation is correct, our government must demand that the Iranian authority speedily investigate the case to find out the truth and take corresponding measures based on humanitarian principles.

But some security experts link Iran’s seizure of the vessel to another purpose. The owner of the cargo ship refuted Iran’s claims about the leaking of harmful chemicals into the sea. There have been no news reports about such leaks in the Strait of Hormuz.

Coincidently, a negotiation is underway between the governments of South Korea and Iran over how to lift Seoul’s ban on transferring to Iran its $7 billion in assets frozen in Korea, which could be used for Teheran to buy vaccines to battle Covid-19. Of course, it is too early to connect the seizure of the ship to the ongoing negotiation.

Yet the Moon administration must take all possibilities into account. South Korea has been cooperating with U.S.-led economic sanctions on Iran. Given expected changes in U.S. policy toward Iran, including restoration of the nuclear deal between Washington and Teheran, Seoul needs to take a flexible approach to Iran, a major oil producer in the Middle East. In that sense, we welcome a vice foreign minister’s scheduled visit to Teheran.

At the same time, the Moon administration must keep the support of the international community. As nearly one-third of the world’s petroleum supplies pass through the strait, national interests are at stake among countries, as seen in the U.S. Department of State’s urging of Teheran to set the tanker free. The government should learn lessons from the British government, which successfully persuaded Iran to release one of its tankers. The government must exert all diplomatic efforts to bring the vessel and crew members back to South Korea.
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