South Korea is sending military forces to respond to the seizure of one of its tankers by Iran, a South Korean defense official told Newsweek. Seoul is also seeking help from other countries to deal with the situation, possibly the US, a sign that already high US-Iran tensions could escalate further.
Iranian media first reported the seizure of the South Korean-flagged tanker Hankuk Chemi on Monday. Iranian officials said the tanker was seized because it was polluting the waters of the Persian Gulf. But the incident could be related to the fact that South Korea has frozen about $7 billion in Iranian assets due to US sanctions.
A South Korean defense ministry official told Newsweek that Seoul had “sent anti-piracy troops near the Strait of Hormuz for the ROK [Republic of Korea] oil tanker directly.”
The official was asked if South Korea was seeking the help of the International Maritime Security Construct, a consortium of nine nations, including the US, that was formed in 2019 after tankers were attacked in the region. Responding to the question, the South Korean official said Seoul sought “close cooperation with regards to the ROK government’s and multinational anti-piracy naval troops.”
The incident comes at a very sensitive time for US-Iran relations. In the Trump administration’s final days, Washington has stepped up its provocations against Iran. Recent weeks have seen B-52 bombers deployed to the region and the announced transit of a US nuclear-power submarine through the Strait of Hormuz. On Sunday, the US reversed a decision to bring an aircraft carrier home from the Middle East after a 10-month deployment, citing Iranian “threats.”
As of Monday night, the Trump administration has not made any official statements on the tanker seizure, but an anonymous State Department spokesperson addressed the incident in comments to Reuters.
“The (Iranian) regime continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions,” the State Department spokesperson said. “We join the Republic of Korea’s call for Iran to immediately release the tanker.”