Iran’s South Korea-Flagged Oil Tanker Seizure: What Does this Action Mean?

By Lieutenant Colonel Youngsuk Lee, Republic of Korea Army, US Central Command: Strategy Plans and Policy Directorate; Combined Strategic Analysis Group
8 Feb 2021


On 5 January 2021, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized the South Korea-flagged oil tanker M/T HANKUK CHEMI in the Strait of Hormuz. As a justification, Iran cited alleged environmental pollution violations. The tanker was crewed by five Koreans, two Indonesians, two Vietnamese and eleven Myanmar nationals. The tanker’s operator denies any environmental violations. The vessel reportedly remains in custody at the port city of Bandar Abbas near an IRGC base. The South Korean government seeks a diplomatic solution and has deployed its anti-piracy naval unit, the “Cheonghae unit,” to the Strait of Hormuz for any contingencies. Since 2009, this unit has deployed as part of CTF-151 to safeguard strategic Middle East waterways and independently to protect civilian ships. A South Korean delegation, led by the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with senior Iranian officials to demand the vessel’s and its crew’s release. However, prospects for resolution appeared mixed. Seoul’s hopes for a diplomatic solution have been dampened by the Iranian declaration that its courts must first adjudicate the vessel’s alleged violations.

Key Points:

  • Iran’s seizure of the South Korean-flagged oil tanker “HANKUK CHEMI” was likely motivated by economic pressures.
  • Coalition security cooperation and economic sanctions should be increased, as Iran’s actions reveal its dire economic situation due to sanctions and the pandemic.
  • To prevent further Iranian malign activities including seizure, kidnapping, drone attack, or hacking, further countermeasures akin to the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) must be planned and executed.
  • Iran may gain further prominence as a Great Power Competitor as hardliners seek to form an anti-western alliance with China.

Read the complete paper here.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.