SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) — South Korea expects this week’s launch of the U.S. administration of Joe Biden to help set the mood for a resolution to its conflict with Iran over a seized Korean oil tanker and Tehran’s money frozen here under U.S. sanctions, a senior official said Thursday.
The foreign ministry official made the remarks, as Seoul seeks to secure an early release of the MT Hankuk Chemi and its 20 sailors, including five Koreans, amid Tehran’s calls to unlock the frozen money to address its humanitarian concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi over oil pollution allegations on Jan. 4. Observers said the seizure could be linked to Iran’s anger over the frozen assets — a charge dismissed by Iran.
“We believe that there will come a situation in which we can find a swift resolution of the issue regarding the seized vessel,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“The government will continue to have consultations on the issue with Iran, and we have expectations as the new U.S. government was launched,” he added.
The official also denied the claim by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi that the failure to release Iran’s frozen funds — worth US$7 billion — is more due to a lack of Korea’s political will rather than the U.S. sanctions.
“Though it is true that addressing the frozen money issue might take some time, our political will and our willingness to have consultations with the U.S. government is higher than at any time,” the official said.
Seoul’s efforts to release the blocked money had borne little fruit as the former Donald Trump administration kept a tough stance on Iran with its 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.
But hopes are rising for a resolution to the conflict with Iran, as Biden has indicated his intention to restore the nuclear deal if Iran gets back into compliance.
“The frozen asset issue is not because of a lack of our will, but of the structural factor vis-a-vis the U.S. sanctions environment,” the official said.
The official also voiced optimism that the ongoing efforts to send to Iran medicine, COVID-19 diagnostic kits and other humanitarian items will bear fruit in the near future.
To address the conflict with Iran, First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun visited Tehran earlier this month. But Iran’s claims that the seizure of the vessel is a technical issue subject to a judicial process raised fears that the conflict could be protracted.