Just days after we showed satellite images which indicated that Chinese ships were trading oil with North Korean ships in a blatant violation of UN Security Council sanctions, South Korea said Friday that it was holding a Hong Kong flagged ship suspected of doing just that.
The Lighthouse Winmore is believed to have "secretly transferred" about 600 tons of refined petroleum products to the North Korean ship, the Sam Jong 2, in international waters in the East China Sea on Oct. 19, according to Bloomberg and the Associated Press.
The Hong Kong vessel had previously visited Yeosu port on Oct. 11 to load up on Japanese oil products and departed the port while claiming its destination was Taiwan. Instead, it transferred the oil to the Sam Jong 2 and three other non-North Korean vessels in international waters
The vessel was chartered by Taiwanese company Billions Bunker Group, which is incorporated in the Marshall Islands. According to Bloomberg, Taiwanese investigators are looking into whether any Taiwanese nationals have ties to the ship that was seized on Friday, Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau says in statement on its website.
Photos from US recon satellites released earlier this week showed at least 30 illegal transactions involving Chinese vessels selling oil to North Korea on the West Sea in October. The images allegedly showed large Chinese and North Korean ships transacting in oil in a part of the West Sea closer to China than South Korea. The satellite pictures were so clear, they even showed the names of the ships.
Amusingly, Beijing on Thursday said there was no illicit trade, with defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang denying everything and claiming that China and its military strictly enforced the UN resolutions on North Korea.
"The situation you have mentioned absolutely does not exist," Ren said at a regular media briefing, without elaborating.
According to Chinese customs data, the country did not export any oil products to North Korea in November.
South Korean customs authorities boarded the ship and interviewed crew members after they returned to Yeosu on Nov. 24. South Korea formally seized the ship after the UN Security Council on Dec. 22 imposed new sanctions on North Korea that allow member states to seize, inspect and freeze vessels that are suspected of transferring banned goods to or from North Korea, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office rules.
The ship’s 25 crew members - 23 of them Chinese nationals and two from Myanmar - are being held at Yeosu but will be allowed to leave South Korea after authorities are finished investigating them, the official said. South Korea plans to report the results of its inspection to the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee.
Whether the Sam Jong 2 returned to North Korea after receiving the oil could not be confirmed.
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The Treasury Department last month sanctioned six North Korean shipping and trading companies and 20 of their vessels. The North Korean ship seen accepting oil transfers in the photos released by the Treasury Department was identified as the Rye Song Gang 1.
Ship-to-ship trade with North Korea at sea is prohibited under the round of UN sanctions adopted on Sept. 11. A subsequent round of sanctions aimed at restricting the North Korean energy trade was passed earlier this month.
President Donald Trump criticized China in a tweet published last night:
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2017
China is responsible for more than 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade and oil supplies.