EghtesadOnline: South Korea will continue its negotiations with Washington to receive exemptions from US sanctions against Iran as ties with Tehran, particularly in the energy sector, are crucial for Seoul, says the East Asian nation's ambassador.
In a recent interview with Tasnim News Agency, Ryu Jeong-hyun acknowledged that renewed US sanctions against the Islamic Republic have created challenges for Korean businesses but said nothing can come in the way of friendship between the two nations.
"We would find a way to continue our friendship and trade, despite this difficult situation," he said, adding that South Korea's Embassy in Tehran will "do all it can" to not only expand economic relations with Iran but also increase cultural cooperation and people-to-people contact.
The United States reimposed sanctions in November on Iranian oil exports after US President Donald Trump last spring unilaterally pulled out of a 2015 accord between Iran and six world powers, as part of broader efforts to curtail Tehran's nuclear and missile programs and its regional influence, Financial Tribune reported.
Eight economies, including South Korea—Iran's fourth largest oil customer in Asia, were granted waivers for six months, and several had expected those exemptions to be renewed.
But in April, the United States demanded that buyers of Iranian oil stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions, as it wants the exports to go to zero as quickly as possible.
Ryu said doing trade with Iran and importing condensates are of great importance to Korean businessmen.
South Korea is the biggest buyer of Iranian condensate, an ultra-light oil prized by the country's refiners as a raw material for petrochemical manufacturing, Reuters reported.
South Korean splitters are designed to process condensate from Qatar and Iran, which are low in sulfur and produce no residue. These grades also have a bigger yield for heavy naphtha, a raw material for the production of petrochemicals such as paraxylene, used in making plastic bottles.
"Iranian condensate has the greatest quality in the world," the ambassador said, adding that almost 50% of his country's condensate imports are from Iran.
Ryu said the US announcement on ending all waivers took Seoul off guard. "We had expected a gradual approach which would give us enough time to make changes to our petrochemical industries for better adaptation. Our refineries are designed to refine Iranian condensates, and any changes would be time-consuming and costly," he added.
The envoy noted that South Korean diplomats in the US hold regular meetings with American officials on the issue of Iran sanctions and possible waivers, and these talks will continue.
"We are in a difficult situation where we are seeking continuation of trade with Iran through utilizing Iranian reserves in Korean banks, but we've received no clear response on this issue from the US."
Ryu said the great volume of trade with the US has put Korean companies in a difficult position.
"While being in need of the important Iranian market, they can't simply ignore US policies," he said.
According to the ambassador, it is not only large firms such as Samsung, LG and SK that have been negatively affected by US sanctions on Tehran, but small- and medium-sized businesses are also grappling with similar challenges.
"The Korean government puts great emphasis on supporting SMEs so that they can continue trade with Iran, which is again a tough issue since US sanctions also include banking transactions."
The senior diplomat said his country's focus is currently on non-sanctioned items such as humanitarian products.
"Great advancements have been made in Korea in the field of medicine and medical products, enabling us to help Iranians," he said.
Ryu said South Korea is directing its diplomatic efforts toward influential actors in Asia.
"In the past, Korean diplomacy was focused on superpowers, including the US, China, Russia and Japan, but the current administration is advancing its policy of diversification, which includes important regional players such as ASEAN countries in southeastern Asia, India in southern Asia, Iran in the Middle East and Australia in the Pacific," he said.
Ryu said strong ties with these countries are of great importance to South Korea and are in line with the country's national interests.