A diplomatic row between South Korea and Iran, sparked by President Yoon Suk Yeol’s reference to Tehran as the “enemy” of the United Arab Emirates during his recent state visit to the UAE, is showing few signs of abating.
Despite Seoul’s efforts to placate Tehran by explaining that Yoon was quoted out of context, Iran reacted by saying what South Korea has done so far is “insufficient.”
According to Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said Monday that while Tehran acknowledges Seoul’s efforts, it is not satisfied with the level of cooperation provided.
This is the first official response from the Iranian government after both countries summoned each other’s envoys over the row.
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman made the remarks in response to a journalist’s inquiry about recent diplomatic issues involving Iran, including the South Korean leader’s comments, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s support of Saudi Arabia’s claim to three islands in the Persian Gulf, and the use of the term “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf” by the Iraqi prime minister.
As Iran continues to take a firm stand against Yoon’s remarks, an official from the South Korean presidential office expressed regret over Tehran’s reaction.
“As the commander in chief of the military, President Yoon told the soldiers based in the UAE what they should do and to face and deal with the grave security situation accordingly,” he said. “His remarks came against this backdrop.”
When he visited South Korean troops stationed in Abu Dhabi on January 15, Yoon said that the UAE’s “enemy and biggest threat is Iran,” comparing it to relations between the two Koreas, while the Middle Eastern countries were working towards mending ties.
Iran immediately condemned Yoon’s remarks as interference and requested an explanation from Seoul, summoning South Korean Ambassador to Iran Yun Kang-hyeon to demand an “immediate explanation and a change in position” concerning Yoon’s “meddlesome” comments.
In response, South Korea summoned Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari to clarify that the statements were intended to boost the morale of South Korean soldiers and should not be misconstrued as the country’s stance on relations with Iran.
Kanaani also reaffirmed the Islamic Republic’s insistence that South Korea should unfreeze its $7 billion in funds held in banks here due to US sanctions, and argued that the South Korean government is obligated to unconditionally fulfill the legal rights of Iran and in line with the framework of bilateral relations.
The spokesperson said that negotiations with South Korea have been conducted through various channels, at different levels and are still ongoing, but the cooperation of the South Korean government on this matter has been deemed insufficient and that Seoul has failed to take necessary actions to fulfill some of Tehran’s demands in cases that are not related to sanctions.
The funds, which include a payment for South Korea’s oil imports from Iran, have been frozen in South Korea since 2018 due to U.S sanctions on Iranian funds in relation to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has persistently been requesting the release of these frozen assets, which amount to the largest sum of Iranian money held by another country.
Meanwhile, Yoon’s enemy remark also drew criticism from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).
In a written statement released to reporters, Rep. Oh Yeong-hwan said Yoon is the biggest threat to South Korean diplomacy and security.
“The basics of diplomacy call for increasing the number of your friends while reducing the number of your enemies. But what President Yoon has done is the opposite. How much longer must the [South] Korean public tolerate an inexperienced president’s mistakes that come from his ignorance of the basics of diplomacy? And how much longer must the nation suffer the consequences to national interests and a tarnished image?” he said.
Another DPK lawmaker Cho Jeong-sik blamed Yoon for what he referred to as a diplomatic gaffe.
“Residents of my electoral district wonder why the president does something that can cause a stir later whenever he goes abroad. They also wonder why he blames others for the mistakes he has made, or tries to find fault with others when he is the one responsible,” Cho told reporters on Sunday.
The ruling People Power Party (PPP) dismissed the DPK lawmakers’ claims, saying that the main opposition party is merely trying to divide the public.