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Iran spurns South Korea request for release of tanker after meetings

South Korea-flagged tanker MT Hankuk Chemi was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Jan. 4. Tehran rejected a South Korean request for the ship’s release on Wednesday, according to Korean press reports. File Photo by Tasnim News Agency/EPA-EFE
South Korea-flagged tanker MT Hankuk Chemi was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Jan. 4. Tehran rejected a South Korean request for the ship’s release on Wednesday, according to Korean press reports. File Photo by Tasnim News Agency/EPA-EFE

Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Iran rejected South Korea's request to release a Korea-flagged tanker Tehran's armed forces seized earlier this month after meetings between a senior South Korean diplomat and Iran's foreign ministry and central bank.

South Korea's foreign ministry said Wednesday South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun met with senior Iranian officials including his counterpart Abbas Araghchi, Governor of the Central Bank of Iran Abdolnasser Hemmati, and head of Iran's foreign relations council Kamal Kharrazi, South Korean paper Hankyoreh reported.

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According to Seoul, Choi strongly protested the confiscation of the MT Hankuk Chemi, which Iran's Revolutionary Guards captured in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 4. Choi said the move was "unacceptable," YTN reported.

During meetings, Iran did not present "technical evidence" related to alleged pollution at sea, South Korea's foreign ministry said. The allegations have been rejected by the tanker's parent company, DM Shipping.

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A South Korean diplomatic source told the Hankyoreh on Wednesday the lack of evidence makes it "difficult to judge" whether the tanker violated international law.

Iranian officials told Choi Tehran will employ a "fair and swift judicial process" to try the ship's proprietor for violating laws, however. Iran also said it will provide "continued humanitarian treatment" of the detained crew that includes five South Koreans, 11 Myanmarese, two Vietnamese and two Indonesians.

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Iran has previously condemned Seoul's decision to freeze Tehran's assets in two South Korean bank accounts, calling South Korea's compliance with the United States' Iran sanctions "unacceptable." In Iran this week, Choi said the financial systems of Korea and the United States are closely associated, and U.S. assistance on any sanctions relief is necessary.

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Park Hyun-do, a research professor at the Institute of Middle East Affairs at Myongji University in South Korea, told YTN the situation is "almost impossible to resolve" before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

Iran's frozen assets are estimated at $7 billion. According to South Korean press reports, Tehran initially requested a transfer of some of the funds to purchase COVID-19 vaccines through the Covax Facility, managed by the World Health Organization. Seoul was prepared to help with the effort, but Iran has yet to make a final decision, Hankyoreh reported.

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