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North Korea Skirts Sanctions With Ship Transfers Over Wider Area

North Korea Skirts Sanctions With Ship Transfers Over Wider Area
Alastair Gale May 29, 2018

In this May 19 photo released by Japan's Ministry of Defense, the North Korean-flagged tanker Ji Song 6 and an unidentified vessel are seen in the East China Sea. Ship-to-ship transfers to North Korean ships are banned by U.N. sanctions. Photo: JAPAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Japan says North Korean ships have been spotted appearing to take on cargo in a new region, the Sea of Japan

North Korea’s ship-to-ship transfers for imports of critical items such as oil appear to have become more widespread as it works to lift sanctions pressure through talks with the U.S., according to Japanese officials.

On Tuesday, Japan said one of its military aircraft spotted a North Korean cargo ship this month connected by hoses to what appeared to be a Chinese-flagged vessel in the East China Sea, the fifth case of a possible North Korean maritime transfer reported in the same region by Tokyo this year.

Additionally, many other North Korean ships have been seen recently appearing to take on cargo in a new region, the Sea of Japan, one senior Japanese official said. Those cases can’t be made public yet because they are still under investigation, the official added, declining to be more specific on the number of cases.

Ship-to-ship transfers to North Korean ships are banned by U.N. sanctions, as are almost all oil deliveries to North Korea.

The evidence of further illegal ship transfers supports the view of the U.S. government that North Korea is struggling under international sanctions pressure aimed at forcing it to give up its nuclear missile program. The U.S. has lined up further sanctions against Pyongyang but has deferred that move during a new swing to diplomacy.

In the latest diplomatic move, North Korea sent a top envoy of leader Kim Jong Un to the U.S. on Tuesday for talks ahead of a possible summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Donald Trump.

Despite the recent flurry of talks, the U.S. and its allies have pledged to maintain existing sanctions pressure on North Korea. To better enforce sanctions on maritime trade, coast guard planes from Australia and Canada deployed to Japan this month to help with surveillance of North Korean ships in the seas near North Korea.

Japan’s foreign ministry said Tuesday that on May 19, a Japanese military aircraft identified a North Korean cargo ship, Ji Song 6, alongside a vessel that was flying what appeared to be the Chinese national flag at sea around 135 miles southeast of Shanghai. The other ship wasn’t identified.

Judging from lights on both vessels’ decks and hoses connecting the two ships, Japan said it strongly suspects a cargo transfer banned by the U.N. was taking place. The Ji Song 6 was banned by the U.N. from entering other countries’ ports earlier this year after it was involved in a suspected ship-to-ship transfer of oil in January. According to the U.N., the ship is owned by Phyongchon Shipping & Marine, based in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city.

Japan has reported four other cases of suspected ship-to-ship transfers in the East China Sea involving North Korean vessels this year, but the latest is the first reported by Japan involving a ship that appeared to be Chinese.

As North Korea’s dominant trading partner, China’s enforcement of sanctions on the country is critical to ensuring economic pressure on Pyongyang. U.S. intelligence has shown at least six cases of other Chinese ships aiding North Korea during the past year.

Earlier in May, following two trips by Mr. Kim for summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr. Trump tweeted a warning that China shouldn’t ease up on sanctions pressure against North Korea.

The Chinese foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. China has in the past said it abides fully with U.N. sanctions on North Korea and would deal with any violation in accordance with the law.

South Korea has also committed to fully enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea despite a thaw in relations between the countries, including two summit meetings this year between Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Japan raised questions about South Korea’s sanctions enforcement earlier this month when it said it spotted a South Korean tanker alongside a North Korean cargo ship in the East China Sea. Seoul denied there was any transfer of fuel but didn’t explain why the ships were next to each other.