South Korea says it will dispatch a government delegation to Iran "at the earliest possible date" to try secure the release of a tanker seized by Iran amid tensions over Iranian funds frozen in Seoul because of U.S. sanctions.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman made the announcement on January 5, a day after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) seized the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi and detained its crew of 20 near the strategic Strait of Hormuz over pollution violations -- an allegation rejected by the ship's operator.
The spokesman also said that South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun will go ahead with a previously planned trip to Tehran early next week, as Iranian officials seek the release of billions of dollars frozen in South Korean banks under U.S. sanctions.
The frozen assets stem from oil sales earned before Washington tightened sanctions on Iran following the U.S. withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
In Tehran, an Iranian government spokesman rejected allegations that Iran's seizure of the tanker amounted to hostage taking.
"If anybody is to be called a hostage taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our more than $7 billion hostage under a futile pretext," Ali Rabiei told reporters.
Earlier, the U.S. State Department called for the tanker's immediate release, accusing Iran of threatening "navigational rights and freedoms" in the Persian Gulf in order to "extort the international community into relieving the pressure" of economic sanctions.
Meanwhile, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced that a destroyer carrying members of South Korea's anti-piracy unit arrived in waters near the Strait of Hormuz -- through which 20 percent of all oil traded passes -- and was "carrying out a mission to ensure the safety of our nationals."
The MT Hankuk Chemi, which had been traveling from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, is currently in the port city of Bandar Abbas.
The Iranian ambassador to Seoul told officials that the crew, which included sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea, and Vietnam, was safe and healthy, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Iranian media quoted the IRGC as saying the vessel was carrying 7,200 tons of "oil chemical products."
The ship was "seized due to the repeated infringement of maritime environmental laws," it said, adding that the case "will be handed over to the judicial authorities of the country."
The incident comes with tensions on the rise in the region coinciding with the first anniversary of the killing by U.S. air strike of a top Iranian general.
The assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC's elite Quds Force, in Baghdad on January 3, 2020, saw Iran retaliate by launching a ballistic-missile strike that injured dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.
As the anniversary approached, the United States sent B-52 bombers flying over the region as well as a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.
The Iranian government also said on January 4 that the country had resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment at an underground facility, a level far above limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers.
Tehran has gradually reduced its compliance with the accord since the United States unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and started imposing crippling sanctions on Iran.
Enriched uranium can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear warheads, with 90 percent purity considered weapons-grade.
Tehran has always denied pursuing nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear program was strictly for civilian purposes.