A South Korean security guard stands on an empty road leading to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea. Picture: REUTERS
A South Korean security guard stands on an empty road leading to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea. Picture: REUTERS

Seoul — South Korea briefly seized and inspected a Hong Kong-registered ship in November for transferring oil products to a North Korean vessel and breaching UN sanctions, a foreign ministry official said Friday.

The confirmation comes after US President Donald Trump lashed out at China over supplying fuel to Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The South Korean official said the Lighthouse Winmore, which was chartered by a Taiwanese company and carrying about 600 tonnes of oil products from South Korea’s Yeosu port, had transferred part of its cargo to a North Korean vessel on October 19.

South Korean customs authorities briefly seized and inspected the ship when it returned to Yeosu Port on November 24, he said.

The ship, chartered by Taiwanese company Billions Bunker Group, previously visited Yeosu on October 11 to load up on Japanese refined oil before heading towards its purported destination in Taiwan.

Instead of going to Taiwan, however, the vessel transferred the oil to the North’s Sam Jong 2 as well as to three other non-North Korean vessels in international waters, the official said.

"This marks a typical case of North Korea shrewdly circumventing UN Security Council sanctions by using its illegal networks", the official told journalists.

"The actions taken will be reported to the UN Security Council sanctions committee on North Korea in the future," he said. South Korea has shared intelligence with the US about the detection of the illegal transaction, he added.

The Sam Jong 2 was one of four North Korean ships that was blocked from international ports by the UN Security Council on Thursday over suspicions of carrying or transporting goods banned by sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s weapons ambitions, diplomats told AFP.

The Security Council has slapped three sets of sanctions on North Korea this year: one on August 5 targeting the iron, coal and fishing industries; another set on September 11 aimed at textiles and limiting oil supply; and the most recent on December 22 focused on refined petroleum products.

US President Donald Trump warned on Thursday that alleged illicit Chinese oil sales to North Korea may jeopardise a peaceful resolution to the confrontation over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

"Caught RED HANDED — very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea. There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!" Trump said on Twitter on Thursday while at his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida.

US spy satellites had observed Chinese vessels allegedly transferring oil to North Korean ships in the sea between the two countries about 30 times since October, Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on December 26, citing unidentified South Korean government officials.

Fox News, which Trump regularly watches, summarised the paper’s report on Wednesday.

Speaking later to the New York Times, Trump said he had "been soft" on China regarding trade in the hope that its leaders would do more to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. He called on China "to help us much more" and signalled he might otherwise take punitive trade actions.

"If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do," Trump told the Times in an interview.

Trump has long been pressuring China to cut off all oil supplies to North Korea in a bid to halt Kim from gaining the ability to strike the US mainland with a nuclear weapon.

China, North Korea’s main trading partner, has resisted any moves that could cause the regime to collapse and has called for a negotiations to resolve the conflict.

A United Nations resolution from September prohibited ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels.

A new round of sanctions passed in December also said North Korea was selling coal and other prohibited items "through deceptive maritime practices" and getting fuel via ship-to-ship transfers, which are used in the petroleum industry to move liquids from one tanker to another at sea, avoiding on-shore infrastructure.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said earlier this week that she was unaware of any ship-to-ship oil transfers.

China had been comprehensively implementing UN resolutions and would prosecute violations if solid evidence is presented, she said.

Hua also questioned whether other countries were implementing parts of the resolution that call for a peaceful settlement to the North Korean conflict.

Chinese ‘crackdown’

"I expect before long we will see a public Chinese crackdown on several transfer ships, or the refineries that feed them," said Bill Brown, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

"The main story is that China is publicly drawing a very tough line on North Korea."

The US in September sought to persuade the UN Security Council to pass a resolution banning oil exports to North Korea.

That provision was dropped in the final document, which established limits on exports of petroleum products such as diesel and kerosene, but didn’t cut off crude sales.

Last week, the Security Council approved tighter sanctions on North Korea, including measures aimed at slashing deliveries of petroleum products to the equivalent of 500,000 barrels a year, starting on January 1.

North Korea on Sunday described the UN move as an "act of war" and vowed to take revenge on the US and other Security Council members.

Deeper cuts

The latest sanctions constitute a deeper cut than the September resolution, which demanded imports be lowered to the equivalent of 2-million barrels from 4.5-million. It also limits crude imports at current levels of about 4-million barrels annually, which the US has said China provides via the Dandong-Sinuiju pipeline.

The US Treasury last month accused North Korea of employing such methods and identified North Korea’s Korea Kumbyol Trading Co as a firm that has attempted ship-to-ship transfers, possibly of oil.

In addition to the Chosun Ilbo report, Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper this week reported North Korea had been using these methods more frequently, using boats from nations including China, citing US, Japanese and South Korean officials it didn’t name.

To help stop the practice, the UN measure says countries can seize, inspect or impound any vessel in their ports if there are grounds to believe the ship is being used to transport banned items.

AFP and Bloomberg

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