March 20, 2019 12:35
Illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil products to North Korea have more than doubled over the past year, South Korean military data suggest.
The transfers aimed at evading tough import quotas set by the UN Security Council have taken place not only on the South China Sea but even on the West Sea as the North has become bolder amid dwindling supplies. But South Korea has done little to intercept them.
According to data Liberty Korea Party lawmaker Baek Seung-joo obtained from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suspected cases of illegal transshipments involving North Korean vessels rose from around 60 in 2017 to around 130 last year. The figures are supported by evidence gathered by communications and satellite surveillance.
A staffer at Baek's office said Tuesday, "These are clear instances of illegal transshipments that took place on the high seas and captured through communications surveillance activities."
Although they took place primarily on the South China Sea, some occurred in the West Sea as well. A military source said some North Korean ships were caught near a South Korean port on the West Sea.
At the request of the U.S. in 2017, the South Korean Navy monitored shipments and discovered around 10 offenses. The UNSC recently also listed some illegal transshipments of refined oil that were reported by South Korea among the 148 cases that it identified between January and August last year.
The UNSC said foreign banks and insurers continue to be involved without their knowledge in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil worth millions of U.S. dollars. It added that illegal transshipments of coal are rising as well.
A military source said, "If we spot signs of illegal transshipments, Navy boats are mobilized to gather evidence which is sent to the Defense Ministry. But we don't forcefully inspect civilian vessels on the high seas."
Instead, the ministry sends the information to Cheong Wa Dae, which then passes it to the UNSC. "We monitor every instance of suspicious transshipments," the source said.
But the findings are not made public. "The U.S. and Japan reveal photographic evidence of North Korea's illegal ship-to-ship transfers, but our Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff don't," Baek said. "This is due to a fear of agitating the North Korean regime and is tantamount to a refusal to abide by UNSC resolutions."
The UNSC has capped the North's annual oil imports at just 500,000 barrels since the regime's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017.
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