After COVID-19 lull, North Korea revives sanctions as China turns a blind eye


WASHINGTON – After a brief lull due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea is carrying out large-scale smuggling operations off China’s coast in violation of UN sanctions, importing oil and selling coal and sand to keep its economy afloat, according to current and former Western experts and officials.

Much of the sanctions circumvention operations rely on front companies registered in China and take place in Chinese territorial waters, where Chinese radars and coastguards closely monitor commercial maritime traffic, experts said.

China has made major investments in its navy and coast guard in recent years, and it seems unlikely that Beijing will be unable to detect or prevent North Korean shipments that often use large barges, said Neil Watts, who was on a UN panel investigating the North. Korea’s sanctions violations.

“It is hard to imagine that they are not able to put a stop to this illicit activity of North Koreans,” said Watts, a former South African naval officer who is now an expert on sanctions at the non-profit organization Compliance and Capacity Skills International.

The latest reports of sanctions violations come despite the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, which is supposed to persuade the regime to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. But three years later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has refused to cede ground on his arsenal and the country’s economy shows no signs of imminent collapse.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In a letter to the UN Security Council on Friday, 43 countries – including the United States and its European allies – accused North Korea of ​​violating an import ceiling for refined oil and demanded the ‘stop all new imports. Reuters first reported on the letter on Friday.

In the first five months of 2020, North Korea imported more than 1.6 million barrels of refined oil in dozens of illicit shipments, mostly through ship-to-ship offshore oil transfers, according to two Western diplomats who shared the details of the letter with NBC News.

A 2019 UN report revealed that the Yuk Tang had falsely transmitted its identity through the Global Electronic Vessel Tracking System, claiming it was a Panamanian-flagged vessel named Maika. The real ship was 7,000 miles in the Gulf of Guinea. The impostor then organized a massive transfer of 57,000 barrels of oil at sea, the largest illicit maritime transfer documented to date.HIM-HER-IT

As part of an effort to block the fuel supply to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the UN Security Council in 2017 imposed an annual limit of 500,000 barrels of imported oil for Pyongyang. But since 2017, UN observers and Western governments have accused North Korea of ​​drastically crossing the ceiling.

Sanctions vs pandemic

Unlike the UN sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic has had more impact on North Korea’s illicit trade, albeit temporarily.

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The coronavirus outbreak prompted China and North Korea to close their borders and introduce screening measures at ports. The lockdown has affected illicit trade for two to three months this year, according to analysts, who cited satellite images of inactive ships. But smuggling activity has resumed with North Korean ships apparently carrying coal to Chinese ports despite UN sanctions, said James Byrne, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank UK on security.

A recent report by NK Pro, an information and analytics company, and the Royal United Services Institute, showed that at least 17 North Korean-linked ships were on a known coal trade route between North Korea and Zhoushan, China, based on satellite photos and broadcast radio signals. by ships.

In one case, a satellite photo captured a Chinese government vessel – resembling a Coast Guard vessel – passing near a North Korean bulk carrier, the Tae Pyong, in May near Zhoushan, according to the report.

The coal shipments are “widely in the sight of Chinese authorities,” Byrne said. “There are a lot of coastal radars, early warning radars, coast guard vessels and police vessels in the area. You cannot sail large ships in Chinese territorial waters without them knowing it.

Despite a U.S.-led effort to clamp down on North Korea’s coal exports, the regime has managed to ship large amounts of coal out of the country over the past year. Coal is a crucial lifeline for North Korea, earning it hundreds of millions of dollars which it then uses to finance the purchase of imports. According to a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts, North Korea exported 3.7 million tonnes of coal between January and August 2019, worth an estimated $ 370 million.

Coal is often delivered via large unregistered barges or with foreign-flagged vessels that transfer cargo to another vessel at sea, using barge-mounted cranes, according to previous reports by a panel of experts from the UN responsible for monitoring sanctions.


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