Iran has released 19 crew members of a South Korean tanker that was seized in the Persian Gulf last month, Iranian state TV announced Tuesday.
The South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi, whose crew included sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, has been in custody at the port city of Bandar Abbas, near the Strait of Hormuz, since January 5.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said a legal investigation into the tanker would continue, although some see the apprehension as a move by Tehran to gain leverage over Seoul. The decision came after the two governments held talks over billions in frozen Iranian assets.
Last month, South Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong Kun visited Iran to discuss the crew’s release, as well as some $7 billion in Iranian assets from oil sales frozen in South Korea due to U.S. sanctions.
A South Korean statement said the country learned of Iran’s plans to release the crew during a phone call Tuesday between Choi and his Iranian counterpart Seyyed Abbas Araghchi.
“The two vice foreign ministers said their governments took an important, first step toward restoring confidence between South Korea and Iran,” the statement said. “They agreed to restore their countries’ traditional, friendly ties of supporting each other when they face difficulties by resolving the issue of the frozen fund.”
This is not the first instance of a ship apprehension by Iran. In 2019, the country similarly apprehended a British-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, which it held for months.
Editor's note: This story has been amended to reflect that the South Korean-flagged ship's captain, according to multiple sources, has not been released, as stated in an earlier version of this story, and that the British-flagged tanker mentioned in the last graph was seized in 2019 in the Persian Gulf, not in 2020 near Gibraltar, as had been indicated previously.