A diplomatic fumbleIt has been found that a Korean intelligence authority reported to the Blue House about suspicious movements of the Iranian military to seize a Korean-flagged tanker now detained in a harbor in Iran. If the South Korean government had pre-emptively responded to the signs a month ago, it could have prevented the Islamic Revolutionary Guard from seizing the cargo ship carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol.
The National Intelligence Service reportedly collected information on a plan by the Iranian government to seize a Korean tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz and sent the information to related ministries in Korea. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply instructed its embassies in Iran and neighboring countries to closely monitor the movements of the Iranian military.
Another question is why the Korean government did not send the Cheonghae unit, which had been deployed to safeguard a strategic waterway in the Middle East, to the waters of the strait to protect the vessel. If the antipiracy unit had been dispatched to the scene, the Iranian Navy might have had second thoughts about seizing the tanker.
Iran’s seizing of a foreign cargo ship without clear reasons constitutes a form of state-sponsored terrorism. Despite a lack of maneuverability of our government after the United States’ sanctions on Iran, it is a serious problem if our government allows a ship with Korean nationals aboard to be easily seized by a foreign country even after being informed of the possibility earlier.
A normal government would have immediately convened a National Security Council meeting and tried to find solutions. Seoul also could have sought help from Washington.
When concerns deepened about an estranged relationship with Iran after America increased sanctions on the country during the Park Geun-hye administration, President Park directly visited Teheran and established a comprehensive partnership with Iran to find a breakthrough. Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also paid a visit to Teheran to refine Japan’s preventive diplomacy.
Iran allegedly seized the tanker to retaliate for South Korea’s decision to freeze $7 billion in Iranian assets. But Seoul’s decision was a direct result of Washington’ toughened sanctions on Iran three years ago, and was not of its own making. The Moon Jae-in administration must make that point clear to Iran. As President-elect Joe Biden promised to ease U.S. sanctions on Iran to induce it to return to the nuclear agreement, the atmosphere is not bad. Change is clearly in the air and a positive change at that. In the meantime, we hope our government does its best to bring our ship and its crew members back safely.