South Korea, Iran, Chemical Tankers, and the Future of Nuclear Peace

On the morning of January 4th, the South Korean tanker 한국 케미 (Hankuk Chemi) drifted peacefully into the Persian Gulf. As the vessel moved through a narrow entrance from the Arabian Sea known as the Strait of Hormuz, the crew of twenty civilian mariners was alerted by a sudden warning from Iranian authorities that their vessel was being taken in. Less than twenty minutes later, armed Iranian troops boarded the ship, cut off the crew’s communications and seized the Hankuk Chemi. 

Following this unexpected capture, 청해(Cheonghae) anti-piracy unit was sent from Seoul to the Strait of Hormuz. Although no developments have been made in regaining the ship at this time, the issue has raised concerns over the future of South Korea’s relations with Iran. Iran has defended their actions with the claim that the South Korean tanker was “creating environmental and chemical pollution in the Persian Gulf” [1]. South Korea has adamantly rejected these claims, and this perceived insult to their country has sparked suspicion that Iran’s actions are more politically motivated than they wish to reveal. 

Iran and South Korea have had diplomatic relations with one another since 1962. Despite each being close with countries that the other has a troubled relationship with (Iran with North Korea and South Korea with the U.S), the two nations have managed to maintain generally civil relations [2]. However, South Korea’s strong alliance with the United States has led them to take cues from the Trump administration, sending their relations with Iran in a downward spiral. 

Diplomatic relations began to crumble in 2019 when South Korea froze approximately $7 billion of Iranian funds in two South Korean banks. The initial outrage led to many heated meetings and threats from Tehran to ban Korean goods and business [2]. Although these events happened more than a year ago, their reverberations can be clearly heard in the midst of the seizure of Hankuk Chemi. Just the day after its capture, Ali Rabiei – Iran’s Former Minister of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare – said “We hope the South Korean government will unblock the frozen money as soon as possible” [3]. 

Unfortunately, the reality of releasing those frozen assets is not quite that simple. The frozen Iranian assets are directly tied to the United States’ relations (or lack thereof) with Iran. Seoul has maintained since 2019 that it is ”simply complying with the U.S. sanctions” by freezing the money after U.S. waivers for Iranian oil imports expired [2]. So, for South Korea and Iran to try and mend their fractured relationship, America may need to take the lead. Seoul values its access to the U.S. market above any of Iran’s past threats, but escalations like capturing a ship with innocent mariners take the stakes to a new level. 

Since Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the relationship with Iran has been even more dangerously unstable than before. As President Biden takes office this year, there may be hope for the United States and Iran to reenter the 2015 deal. Some hope that Iran could be placated by the willingness of a new leader to negotiate with them [4]. Biden has made it clear that in order for the U.S. to reenter the deal, Iran must be willing to return “to strict compliance” and agree to “follow-on negotiations” [5]. However, Iranian officials have not indicated any interest in discussions surrounding an improved nuclear deal. 

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, recently called on the new administration to lift sanctions while warning that they might abandon any nuclear pacts if pushed to make concessions [6]. If Biden does not work to diplomatically appease them, Iran may very well retaliate with violence as well as by developing their nuclear program. This course would certainly be in line with the precedent their country has set of “of meeting maximum pressure with maximum resistance” [5]. With their wide array of connections in the Islamic Republic, Iran could embolden terrorist organizations, organize cyber attacks, resurface sleeper cells, and wreak havoc on whoever they see as a threat to their authority. The consequences of such violent action would thrust the U.S. and faithful allies – like South Korea – into all out war. And so, it is crucial that the Biden administration take the most cautious of steps towards a nuclear deal. For the future of our country – and the world itself – may depend on our ability to establish and maintain nuclear peace with one of the most unhinged countries in the world.

[1]https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/04/middleeast/iran-uranium-enrichment-restarted-intl/index.html 

[2]https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/the-souring-of-iran-south-korea-relations/

[3]https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/05/asia/south-korea-anti-piracy-unit-iran-ship-seized-intl-hnk-mil/index.html 

[4]https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/world/middleeast/south-korea-ship-iran.html 

[5] https://www.cfr.org/blog/transition-2021-looming-iran-crisis [6]https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iran-javad-zarif-urges-joe-biden-unconditionally-lift-sanctions

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Haeley Christensen

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