|First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, left, poses with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, Iran, Monday. / Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs|
By Kang Seung-woo
Korea and Iran remain far apart over the release of a Korean oil tanker and its crewmembers, with First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun leaving Tehran, Tuesday, without any deal despite a series of meetings with senior Iranian officials, including the foreign minister and its central bank chief.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday, the government plans to continue talks with Iran and will work to bring the tanker and crew back home as early as possible, based on Choi's discussions with the Iranian side during his three-day visit. The ministry also said it will actively offer consular assistance to the crewmembers.
Last week, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi, which was carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol, and its crew of 20, including five Koreans, in the Strait of Hormuz for causing "environmental pollution."
On the occasion of the talks, Choi protested the seizure and called for the swift release of the vessel and its crewmembers, asking the Iranian officials to provide concrete evidence to prove its marine pollution allegations. But Iran has yet to do so.
The seizure occurred as the Iranian government has been complaining about the Korean government's refusal to release $7 billion (7.6 trillion won) Iran has in two Korean banks here due to U.S. sanctions. However, Iran is denying allegations that it is leveraging the seizure to receive the frozen funds, citing a "technical" issue subject to "legal and judicial" regulations.
In fact, when the Korean foreign ministry announced Choi's visit to discuss the seizure, Iran said it did not require a diplomatic trip.
However, at the same time, Teheran has incrementally ramped up its criticism of Seoul's failure to unlock the funds from oil sales.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said, Tuesday, Iran is dissatisfied with Korea's approach to the asset issue, adding Seoul's action on the matter has been very slow.
Choi departed for Qatar, Tuesday, to discuss pending bilateral issues before returning home, Thursday.