19 sailors held by Iran to be released, but captain still detained
Iran agreed to release all crew members of a South Korean-flagged oil tanker seized in the Strait of Hormuz last month, with the exception of the captain, Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed late Tuesday.
The MT Hankuk Chemi, which was on its way to the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia, was seized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Persian Gulf on Jan. 4. There were 20 crew members aboard the ship: Five South Koreans, including the captain, and 11 Burmese, two Indonesian and two Vietnamese sailors.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi informed Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun of the decision to release the 19 sailors in a phone call Tuesday evening, Seoul's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The two governments had "started an important first step in restoring trust between Korea and Iran," the Korean Foreign Ministry said, and "agreed to restore traditionally friendly relations that help each other out in difficult times by resolving the frozen asset issue."
Iranian authorities have cited chemical and environmental pollution issues as the reason behind the ship's seizure, accusations that were rejected by the Busan-based operator of the vessel, DM Shipping.
Seoul's Foreign Ministry immediately protested the seizure of the ship, and dispatched a team of diplomats led by Koh Kyung-sok, director-general of the ministry's Africa and Middle Eastern Affairs Bureau, last month to negotiate its release.
Choi in January made a separate visit to Tehran, scheduled ahead of the ship's seizure to discuss how to handle Iran's assets locked in Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions, among other issues. He also requested for the release of the vessel, held in Iran's Bandar Abbas Port, and its crew.
In May 2018, the Donald Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Jcpoa), signed in July 2015 by Iran, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and the United States, under which Tehran had agreed to curb its nuclear weapons program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.
Iran has urged the release of assets worth some $7 billion held in two Korean banks — the Industrial Bank of Korea and Woori Bank — which have been frozen since September 2019, when U.S. sanctions waivers for Korea's imports of Iranian oil expired.
Choi in the Tuesday phone call explained to Iran that the Korean government will push forward with speed on issues it can resolve independently, and that it will proceed transparently in any negotiations with the United States in areas that require consultations with Washington.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh confirmed Tuesday that the crew members, except the captain, will be released following Seoul's request.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]