South Korea has announced it is sending the military’s anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit to the Persian Gulf after Iran seized a South Korean-flagged tanker off the Islamic Republic’s southern coast Monday, according to Yonhap News.
“The foreign ministry and the South Korean embassy in Iran have found that the crews are safe, and are requesting the early release of the ship,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Iran announced earlier in the day that its IRGC Navy forces detained the MT Hankuk Chemi chemical tanker for what official statements called “oil pollution” – a common excuse Iranian officials often given when they take such action.
Iranian state media also indicated the crew had been placed under arrest, which according to Yonhap includes 20 total crew members – among them 5 Koreans, 11 Myanmarese, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese.
The report notes further that the newly deployed anti-piracy unit will likely liaison with forces of allied navies already in the area:
The defense ministry said that it will deal with the seizure in cooperation with the ministries of foreign affairs and fisheries, and a multinational naval force operating in nearby waters.
The Cheonghae unit has previously operated in an anti-piracy capacity in the Persian Gulf, as recently as a year ago in conjunction with international allies. The operator of the Korean tanker that was seized has maintained the vessel did nothing wrong, but was still ordered to receive Iranian inspections, at which point it was detained in Iranian waters.
First photos of the Fujairah-bound South Korean chemical tanker HANKUK CHEMI, which was seized today by IRGC Navy because of “chemical pollution” in Iran’s waters pic.twitter.com/1P8t1vxV8w
— Reza Khaasteh (@Khaaasteh) January 4, 2021
“Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps boarded the ship at around 4:30 p.m. (local time) and demanded the ship face examinations in Iranian waters,” an official from the tanker’s operator, DM Shipping, told South Korean media.
The tanker is still said to be in Iranian territorial waters at a moment tensions with the US and Israel are at boiling point. As we noted before, the seizure is apparently in retaliation for South Korea’s previous freezing of Iranian assets in South Korean banks based on US-led sanctions.These assets in South Korean banks are commonly estimated at up to $7 billion.