Iran has not replied to S. Korea’s demand to release vessel and crew members

Posted on : 2021-01-13 18:14 KST Modified on : 2021-01-13 18:14 KST
Tehran continues to insist on receiving US$7 billion frozen in Korean banks
First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-kun and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on Jan. 10. (AP/Yonhap News)
First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-kun and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on Jan. 10. (AP/Yonhap News)

First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-kun has yet to hear a definite reply to his demand that Iran release the South Korean vessel and crew members seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The silence, despite meetings with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other key Iranian officials, suggests that the crew members’ detention may continue for some time.

In a regular briefing on Jan. 12, South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Spokesperson Choi Young-sam explained, “Vice Minister Choi met successively on Jan. 10 and 11 local time with Minister Zarif, the Iranian supreme leader’s diplomatic advisor [director of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations] Kamal Kharrazi, and Central Bank of Iran Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati to forcefully communicate [South Korea’s] position demanding the swift release of the recently detained South Korean vessel and its crew members.”

“Iran stated its position as they have previously indicated it [regarding the equivalent of US$7 billion in won-denominated funds currently frozen in South Korea],” he added.

But with Iran criticizing South Korea on Jan. 10 for its “lack of political will” to resolve the frozen funds issue and its stern demands for “serious efforts to prioritize this issue in bilateral relations and find the necessary mechanism to resolve the matter,” Seoul appears unlikely to achieve the swift release of the ship and its crew that it was aiming for.

Indeed, Choi Jong-kun does not appear to have offered any groundbreaking or concrete plans to satisfy Iran’s demands during his visit. In his remarks that day, Choi Young-sam merely reiterated MOFA’s previously stated position.

“It is true that Iran hoped to purchase COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX Facility and requested the transfer of its won-denominated funds to do this,” he said.

“In reflection of Iran’s hopes, the South Korean government has completed all procedures, including special approval from the US. But the question of what pathway is used to purchase the vaccine is entirely for Iran to decide,” he continued.

But a Jan. 11 report by Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA shared quotes expressing a harder line. According to IRNA, Hemmati said that Iran “hopes that South Korea will make an independent judgment on this issue without considering the US’ demands,” while Kharrazi said, “We strongly condemn South Korea’s bowing to US pressure. We cannot even withdraw money to purchase medicine.”

The messages essentially call on Seoul to present Iran with a way around the current sanctions rather than taking cues from Washington. This may explain the message from the MOFA, which said, “We are doing our utmost to see to it that the detention is quickly lifted, but it is not impossible to predict exactly when that will be.”

The detained crew members are reported to be healthy and safe. A MOFA official said, “A South Korean consul met in person with all of the crew members on the morning of Jan. 11 at a dock near where the ship is anchored and confirmed that they are healthy.”

Choi Jong-kun was scheduled to contact other Iranian officials, including the deputy justice minister and the director of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, before departing on the evening of Jan. 12 for his next stop in Qatar.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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