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The coal conundrum

Aug 13,2018
Even after the bombshell news about North Korean coal being smuggled into South Korea despite UN sanctions, the Moon Jae-in administration has been responding in a questionable way. On Friday, the Korea Customs Service announced that North Korean coal had been shipped to South Korean ports on the claim that its origin was Russia.

Following the announcement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would ban the entry of foreign-registered ships carrying North Korean coal into South Korea. But the United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea require tougher action. They stipulate that UN member states must seize, inspect and detain vessels “if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the cargo of such vessels contains prohibited items,” including coal. The South Korean government should have complied with the UN sanctions strictly. It is no wonder that opposition parties have begun to talk about holding a hearing in the National Assembly and launching a legislative probe into the case.

The Moon administration adheres to the position that those violations resulted from profit-seeking individual traders, not the state. But the lead-up to the appalling revelations encourages many suspicions. First of all, it does not make sense that it took up to 10 months for the government to discover the truth. How can it dilly-dally even after being notified of the smuggling in detail? If you just type the identification number and issue date of a certificate of origin of freight, you can easily tell if they were authentic. That’s not all. The contract for the use of ports clearly mentioned that the coal in question came from North Korea. We are dumbfounded that our customs authorities were not able to detect the true origin of the coal.

Thanks to the lackadaisical attitude of our customs authorities, seven foreign-registered vessels transported North Korean coal to South Korean harbors as many as 97 times. The authorities did not inspect them at all on 56 occasions. On July 6 — at the peak of suspicions — the government nonchalantly let a Belize-registered cargo ship in Pohang Harbor on the East Coast depart, citing a lack of evidence of violations.

Coal is one of the most prime sources of hard currency for the Kim Jong-un regime. Our government must get to the bottom of the situation to check if any customs officials were ordered to turn a blind eye. If not, the government will trigger not only a strong backlash at home but also acute distrust overseas. No one knows what will happen if the international community, including the United States, starts to sanction our companies and banks on the grounds of violations of UN resolutions.