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Blinken's remarks deepen Korea's Iran dilemma

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U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken / AP-Yonhap
U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken / AP-Yonhap

Tanker seizure, frozen asset issues with Iran getting complicated

By Do Je-hae

Washington's negative stance about easing sanctions on Iran, including those covering about $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in Korean banks, is likely to make it harder for Seoul to resolve the issue of a Korean tanker seized by Tehran, as resolving the financial issue is believed to be a priority in getting it released.

During an appearance at the House Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dismissed some media reports that part of the funds at the Korean banks could be released. "Unless and until Iran comes back into compliance, they won't be getting that relief and the report you referred to is simply incorrect," Blinken said.

His remarks came amid rising tension between the U.S. and Iran over a nuclear deal and Iran's call for the lifting of sanctions.

Under the circumstances, the remarks from the top U.S. diplomat are seen as aggravating the dilemma faced by Seoul, which has sought to resolve the issue of the frozen assets, one of the biggest obstacles to bilateral relations. Earlier this year, a Korean tanker and its crew members were seized by Tehran.

Currently, the $7 billion from oil sales by Iran are being held in the two banks due to the U.S. sanctions.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has tried to resolve the issue with Iran through active diplomacy, with First Vice Minister Choi Jong-kun visiting the country in January.

Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong also spoke with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, Feb. 24, and underlined Seoul's efforts for progress on outstanding bilateral issues, such as the frozen assets and the release of the Korean vessel and its captain, who is also still being held by Tehran despite the release of his crewmembers.

"Foreign Minister Chung called for the early release of the Korean-flagged vessel Hankuk Chemi and its captain. In response to Foreign Minister Zarif's request for an early resolution of the issue of Iranian funds frozen in Korea, Chung explained that the government was making its best efforts with sincerity," the ministry said in a statement.

In February, Iran announced Tehran and Seoul had reached a deal under which the money would be transferred to its desired destination. In response, Seoul said at the time that it may release part of the funds after getting Washington's agreement.

"If the U.S. does not agree to the release of the funds, there is not much Korea can do since it cannot go against the sanctions," said Shin Beom-chul, director at the Center for Diplomacy and National Security at the Research Institute for Economy and Society in Seoul. "Blinken's remarks present a challenge for Seoul to manage the situation well so that the prolonged freezing of the funds won't further aggravate bilateral relations and negatively impact the ongoing efforts for the release of the Korean ship and its captain."

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul said Secretary Blinken's principled approach on the frozen Iranian funds was good news for Korean national interests. "It allows Seoul to resist extortion even while making every reasonable effort to cooperate with Tehran. This also sends a signal to North Korea that international sanctions will be strictly enforced but can be relaxed upon compliance with denuclearization agreements."
Do Je-hae


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