(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 7-8, 11-13)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- Iran has agreed to release all sailors of a seized South Korean oil tanker except for the captain for its management, the foreign ministry confirmed Tuesday, capping weeks of tough negotiations between the two countries.
The MT Hankuk Chemi, along with its 20 sailors, including five Koreans, has been held at an Iranian port since early January when Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps seized it in waters off the Islamic republic for alleged oil pollution.
"Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi has informed us that the Iranian government decided to first release all sailors except for the captain," the ministry said in a press release.
The captain will remain in Iran to take care of the tanker, officials said. It was unclear when the ship will be released.
During 30-minute telephone talks with First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun earlier in the day, Araghchi notified Seoul of the decision.
Choi welcomed the release and urged the Iranian government to do its utmost for the swift release of the captain and the vessel.
"Deputy Minister Araghchi pledged to ensure the humanitarian treatment of the captain and guarantee sufficient consular assistance for him pending a judicial process," the ministry said.
"The two sides agreed to continue mutual communication for an early end to the current situation," it added.
The ministry is currently in talks with the ship operator to discuss issues related to the release of the sailors and their return back home.
At the time of the seizure, the vessel was carrying 20 crewmembers -- 11 Myanmarese, five Koreans, two Indonesians and two Vietnamese.
The Iranian judiciary granted permission to the crew of the ship to leave Iran, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported, citing its foreign ministry spokesperson.
During the negotiations over the release of the ship and sailors, speculation had persisted that the seizure might have been linked to Iran's anger over its money frozen in South Korea under U.S. sanctions, though Tehran rejected it.
During the talks with Araghchi, Choi said Seoul will seek to speedily address the frozen asset issue if there are areas it can independently address, while continuing consultations with Washington in a "transparent" manner, the ministry said.
Seoul has hoped that efforts to find a solution to the issue could gather steam should the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden resume diplomacy with Tehran.
Choi visited Tehran last month to secure the early release of the sailors. But Iran's claims that the seizure of the vessel is a technical issue subject to a judicial process had raised fears that the conflict could be protracted.