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Seoul requires more time to join Iran sanctions: minister

SEOUL -- South Korea's finance minister called Monday for more time to diversify oil sources amid pressure on Seoul to join U.S.-led sanctions on Iranian oil over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

Washington has urged its allies to significantly reduce oil imports from Iran in line with a sanctions bill signed by President Barack Obama last month.

Bahk Jae-Wan said negotiations with the U.S. were under way but called for a gradual approach to minimize damage to the economy. South Korea imports nearly 10 percent of its crude from Iran.

“Each nation has different circumstances ... so there are many factors to consider ... including what to do with existing contracts,” he told reporters, describing the current volume of Iranian oil imports as “quite large.”

“We are discussing with the U.S. government in the matter of how much is 'significant' and I believe the discussions ... will take quite a bit of time,” Bahk said.

South Korea is a close ally of the United States and 28,500 U.S. troops are based in the country. But the highly industrialized nation is also the world's fifth largest oil importer.

Bahk said Saudi Arabia this month offered to increase crude supplies to South Korea but cautioned that diversifying sources of oil will take more time and policy coordination.

President Lee Myung-bak will visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates next week, in a trip to help South Korea “secure a stable supply of energy resources,” his office said.

Finance Minister Bahk vowed “utmost efforts” to prevent any sanctions from triggering a dramatic surge in oil prices and fuelling inflation — one of the government's top policy concerns this year.

Seoul in December added more than 100 names to a financial blacklist of Iranian firms and individuals, joining a fresh multinational effort to press Iran to scrap its suspected nuclear weapons program.

But it did not announce a ban on imports of petrochemicals or crude oil.

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