(2nd LD) S. Korea calls for early release of oil tanker seized by Iran

January 4, 2021

 The government called Monday for the early release of a South Korean-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran in the Persian Gulf.

Earlier in the day, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) seized the vessel, MT Hankuk Chemi, reportedly due to environmental and chemical pollution by the ship.

The vessel, which was travelling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, was carrying 20 crewmembers — 11 Myanmarese, five South Koreans, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese.

“The foreign ministry and the South Korean embassy in Iran have learned that the crews are safe, and are requesting the early release of the ship,” the ministry said in a statement.

The defense ministry said that the country’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit is moving toward the scene, and that it will respond in cooperation with the ministries of foreign affairs and fisheries, and a multinational naval force operating in nearby waters.

This closed-circuit TV image shows South Korean oil tanker MT Hankuk Chemi arriving in an Iranian port after it was seized by Iranian troops on Jan. 4, 2021. An Iranian speedboat is seen in the red circle. (Yonhap)

The IRGC confirmed that MT Hankuk Chemi was seized and directed to Bandar Abbas, a port city on Iran’s southern coast, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported without mentioning a reason for the seizure.

The IRGC noted that “the issue is to be dealt with by the judicial officials.”

An official of DM Shipping, the operator of the ship, denied allegations that the vessel polluted waters in the Persian Gulf.

The official said that Iranian troops contacted the vessel as it sailed in high seas and that there was no pollution.

They boarded the ship at around 4:30 p.m. (Korea time) and demanded the ship face examinations in Iranian waters, the official said.

“(The ship’s captain) asked why we have to go and be examined and did not get any answer,” the official added.

As the seizure took place, the captain pressed an anti-piracy alarm button, with the ship operator in Korea continuing to watch the situation through a surveillance camera system, according to the official.

The incident came as tensions have been rising between the United States and Iran, with Tehran beginning uranium enrichment up to 20 percent at an underground facility and marking the first anniversary of the death of a general killed in a U.S. drone strike.

South Korea has been facing a diplomatic quandary between the U.S., its core ally, and Iran, a key trade partner in the Middle East.