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South Korea sends warship to Gulf after Iran seizes oil tanker

South Korea’s defence ministry says destroyer near the Strait of Hormuz is carrying members of an anti-piracy unit
South Korean naval destroyer ROKS Choe Yeong in an undated picture, a similar South Korean destroyer has been sent to the Persian Gulf (AFP)

A South Korean naval destroyer sailed into Persian Gulf waters on Tuesday, less than a day after Iranian naval forces had seized a Korean-flagged oil tanker and its crew members. 

South Korea’s Ministry of Defence said on Tuesday that its destroyer had arrived near the Strait of Hormuz, which borders Iran, carrying members of an anti-piracy unit.

“[It] was carrying out a mission to ensure the safety of our nationals,” the ministry said, without elaborating on details. 

Seoul said that it had had 300 members of the anti-piracy Cheonghae unit operating in the region since last year, but “would not engage in [an] offensive operation… The unit is focused on the safety of our people who use the waterway after the seizure incident”, AFP reported.

Iran seizes South Korean tanker in Gulf waters
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On Monday, Iran had seized the Hankuk Chemi, a South Korean-registered tanker, in Gulf waters, as tensions mounted between the two countries over Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks due to US sanctions. 

According to Abdolnaser Hemmati, governor of the Central Bank of Iran, the country has "$7bn of deposits in South Korea" that can neither "be transferred nor do we get any returns on, while they ask us for the costs" of holding the funds.

Iran said that the Hankuk Chemi, which was carrying 7,200 tonnes of ethanol, had infringed maritime environmental laws.

Iranian state TV reported that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had captured the vessel because it was allegedly polluting the Gulf with chemicals. 

Images posted by Iran's semi-official Tasnim agency showed IRGC guard speedboats escorting the tanker.

Iran resumes uranium enrichment

The ship, according to Tasnim, had been taken to the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and its crew - which included nationals from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar - were arrested.

Choi Young-sam, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said an official delegation would be "dispatched to Iran at the earliest possible date to try to resolve the matter through bilateral negotiations".

On Tuesday, Iran said it had launched a two-day military exercise, featuring domestically produced drones.

On Sunday, the country announced that it had resumed uranium enrichment at pre-nuclear-deal levels of 20 percent.

The announcements and increased tensions in Gulf waters coincided with the first anniversary of the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by a US drone strike in Baghdad.