Captured seafarers from South Korean tanker are pawns in political rivalry

Iran released crew members of a South Korean-flagged tanker that was seized near the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran agreed to release crew members of a South Korean-flagged ship seized near the Strait of Hormuz as a “humanitarian move”. However, experts say that Tehran may have a different intention from that.  By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

On 2 February, Iran released crew members of a South Korean-flagged tanker that has been seized in the Persian Gulf since last month. A total of 19 crew members were released, including sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam but the captain and the vessel itself remain in custody.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that the country decided to release the crew members of the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi in a “humanitarian move”, upon a request from the South Korean government.

However, some experts say that Iran’s decision on the release could have been based on political calculation – to renegotiate on the nuclear deal with the United States and receive billions of frozen funds in South Korea.

Seizure of MT Hankuk Chemi

Since 5 January, South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi had been seized near the Strait of Hormuz for alleged leaking of oil.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards first claimed that the ship entered Iranian waters without prior permission. After checking the history of the ship’s route, which did not pass Iranian waters, the authorities changed their story to say they seized the ship as it violated the environmental rules with possible leakage of oil.

The vessel’s operator, Taikun Shipping Co. Ltd., when first informed about the seizure, said that the ship could not have caused any pollution during the journey. The operator also said that there were no former notices or signs from the Iranian authorities about the possible investigation on an environmental rule’s violation.

After South Korea was informed about the seizure, its vice foreign minister Choi Jong-kun visited Tehran on 10 January to discuss about releasing the 20-member ship but failed to make any resolutions then.

Iranian authorities denied allegations from South Korea that they are holding the ship and its crew members as hostage.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi told Choi that it was South Korea that held Iran’s frozen funds in South Korea as “hostage” and it “should refrain from politicizing the issue and fruitless propaganda and allow the legal proceedings to proceed.”

The real reason

Suwan Kim, Professor of the Middle East and Islam Strategy in International Strategy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said that Iran could have seized the vessel to use as leverage to take back its frozen funds in South Korea.

“Although Iran said it seized the South Korean-flagged vessel as it polluted the environment, the process of seizure and arrest, such as reviewing pieces of evidence, was different from other previous cases. Arresting for the violation of environmental rules was merely its ostensible reason.”

South Korea used to be one of the major buyers of Iranian oil until the US reimposed sanctions in 2019. For the past two years, South Korea stopped some of the financial transactions with Iran, and currently holds approximately US$7 billion in Iranian funds from oil sales frozen in the country.

Former US President Donald Trump repealed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The deal stated that the US will lift financial and trade sanctions against the country if Iran curbs the development of nuclear weapons.

“Last year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sent two letters to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to transfer frozen Iranian funds in the country,” Prof. Kim told Maritime Fairtrade. “South Korea has not shown any actions to resolve the issue of frozen Iranian funds, however. It could have sent over medical supplies, for example, to reimburse the payment, but it didn’t.”

Also, Iran could have seized the ship to show how powerful the country is in protecting its waters, said Gi Yeon Koo, Research Professor at Asia Center of Seoul National University. 

“Iran’s seizure could have been to convince its people that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Gulf are guarding Iranian waters well,” Prof. Koo said to Maritime Fairtrade.

The true target

Prof. Kim and Prof. Koo both agreed that the real target of the recent seizure is the US, not South Korea, even though neither the crew nor the ship was American.

“Iran tried to pressure the US in a more indirect manner,” said Prof. Koo. “Perhaps it tried to warn the US that situations like these would not happen if sanctions are lifted.”

“This was Iran’s pre-emptive move against the US, by pressuring its traditional ally before the new President Joe Biden stepped into the office,” Prof. Kim said. “Unlike the former administration, President Biden wants to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. Therefore, seizing a South Korean vessel could have been done to show the US where Iran stands.”

Shortly after the report of seizure, the US made an official statement that urged Iran to release the South Korean-flagged ship. Although there is no mention of renegotiation of the nuclear deal between the US and Iran yet, South Korea’s vice foreign minister Choi said they will consult the US to resolve the frozen funds issue.

Why Iran decided to release seafarers

Regarding the release, Prof. Kim said Iran couldn’t hold the ship and its crew members in custody for a long time, as this would tarnish its international reputation.

“If Iran holds the ship and the crew for an extended period, the country may be criticized for violating (humanitarian values),” Prof. Kim said. “It was about time for Iran to free the crew, to increase the possibility of renegotiation of the nuclear deal and take a better position in the process.”

Prof. Koo said the release of crew members proves that Iran’s main reason for seizing MT Hankuk Chemi is not environmental pollution.

“Environmental pollution is quite a non-political reason to seize a ship for an extended period,” she said. “The crew were not part of other countries’ navy or pirates. That is why Iran had to let the crew members go.”

South Korea’s immediate response to the situation could also have been the reason behind the release, Prof. Koo said. South Korea sent a high-level delegation over to Iran to resolve the matter, discussed with the US and the United Nations, and suggested they could provide the frozen funds in other forms of payment, such as the UN allotment.

“Iran must have achieved its primary goals of the seizure from South Korea’s actions. There are no other political reasons left for Iran to hold all crew members in custody too,” Prof. Koo said. 

What will happen next

While Iran did not release the captain and the MT Hankuk Chemi vessel itself yet, Prof. Kim thinks they will also be set free in February.

“Iran’s moves and decision are very strategic in this situation,” she said. “They kept the ship and the captain to make further, additional negotiations on the nuclear deal and the frozen funds. I expect them both to be released in February, however.”

Prof. Koo said that there will be some actions from the Biden Administration on this matter soon, as the relationship with Iran is an important political issue to the US too.

“Maybe Iran anticipated the US to (show signs of renegotiation on the nuclear deal or lifting the financial sanctions) when they released the crew members,” she added.

Image credit: Thierry P /

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