US Officials Press Korea to Reduce Iranian Imports

American officials try to sway Seoul’s stance on trade with Iran but it’s a major Korean trading partner.

For the second time in as many weeks, American officials attempted to sway South Korea’s stance on trade with Iran. Last week in Seoul, South Korea, Robert Einhorn, the US special advisor on nonproliferation and arms control, made it clear that the United States hoped to see South Korea cut its petrochemical imports with the Middle Eastern nation, rallying them to consider an eventual reduction in their Iranian crude oil dependency, stopping short of a full recommendation:

“As production capacity increases, it would be possible for countries to reduce their purchases of Iranian crude and to make up the shortfall by acquiring from other countries,” Mr Einhorn said at a news conference. “But we’re very conscious of the energy security needs of countries like South Korea and we don’t want to interfere with those needs.”

Mr Einhorn’s words come only a few weeks after Wendy Sherman, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Albright/Clinton protégée/advisor, prodded similar action from the South Korean nation.

South Korea imported 350 million dollars of Iranian petrochemicals (2 percent of its total petrochem imports) and exported 450 million dollars of their own to Iran last year. A far higher 10 percent of South Korea’s crude oil comes for Iran.

The recommendations by Einhorn and Sherman follow an all out diplomatic assault by the US State Department in recent weeks to shore up its Asian allies and freeze out its regional enemies, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Burma, which promised improved ties with the repressive nation in exchange for concessions in reducing their North Korean weapons imports.

This author balks slightly on American diplomats’ heavy handed diplomacy in regards to what other nations should or should not do, but the following words are somewhat worrisome in light of Iran’s relationship with North Korea:

Last year, Seoul listed 126 Iranian companies and individuals for economic sanctions, including a major banking operation, in response to American and international pressure. Seoul is reportedly considering imposing sanctions targeting the petrochemical industry following the latest round of sanctions by Washington and other Western powers.

A 10 percent crude oil dependency is not easily shifted but it’s worth the Republic of Korea noting that Iran has been a major trading partner with North Korea in the realms of missile, nuclear and (apparently) submarine technologies for a good many years now.

Continuously waiting for American pressure to ponder sanctions in light of the above relationship is a strange move for a country trying to pry itself out from under America’s shadow but then so is trading with a country that’s helping the nation its still at war with.

This story first appeared at Asia Security Watch, December 6, 2011.