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North disregarding sanctions on coal exports

Aug 15,2019
North Korea appears to be continuing to skirt UN sanctions on coal exports, based on satellite footage showing container vessels docked in its major harbor.

According to satellite images from Planet Labs, a private imaging company, obtained by Voice of America (VOA), an apparent cargo ship measuring around 110 meters (328 feet) long was spotted on Tuesday at Nampo harbor, the North’s main shipping port used to export raw materials like coal.

The ship was first seen docked on Saturday, but had been moved approximately 30 meters from its original position in a different image from Tuesday. Piles of black objects closely resembling coal were stacked nearby, the VOA report read.

The report also said four other similar ships were spotted at Nampo from Aug. 1 to Tuesday, each docked for three or four days at a time. One vessel in particular harbored on Aug. 3 measured approximately 138 meters wide.

While the images alone cannot definitively prove the country is violating UN sanctions on its coal exports, similar footage from Planet Labs over a six month period from earlier this year shows there has been continued traffic at ports like Nampo and Songim on the western coast.

In response to the North’s nuclear and missile development programs, the UN Security Council approved a series of increasingly stringent resolutions imposing sanctions on exports of raw minerals like coal, iron or copper from the country and setting limits on imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products. Resolution 2371, in particular, passed in August 2017, completely banned all exports of coal from the country.

A report from April by the North Korea analysis website at the Stimson Center, 38 North, said the country’s larger coal mines have remained active in spite of the sanctions, and noted evidence of shipments of coal within the country.

North Korea is believed to operate a fleet of cargo vessels registered under different flags to sell such coal, lead and iron abroad in violation of sanctions. Russian ports often serve as layover points where smugglers forge documents to falsify the origin of the shipments and transfer them onto different ships.

In many cases, banned materials are moved across different vessels mid-water through ship-to-ship transfers, but the frequency of such practices recently has put the United States and international authorities on high alert.

A UN panel of experts report from March said such illegal transfers of petroleum products and coal saw a massive increase recently, and alleged that Pyongyang also violated an arms embargo by shipping small arms to groups in places like Yemen, Libya and Sudan.

Last month, a South Korean company identified in a UN panel of experts report as Enermax was accused of buying 3,217 tons of North Korean coal from a cargo ship registered in Togo that entered Pohang, North Gyeongsang, in March this year after going through Nakhodka harbor in the Russian Far East in February.

The same company was cited in a UN report as the recipient of coal from an earlier shipment carried by Wise Honest, one of Pyongyang’s largest bulk carriers seized by the United States in May.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]