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Washington trusts Seoul to check for dubious coal

Aug 10,2018
The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday that it had faith in South Korea’s implementation of sanctions on North Korea after Seoul faced accusations of allowing ships with suspected North Korean coal to slip through its ports.

“The Republic of Korea is a faithful and reliable partner in the maritime implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions,” the State Department said in a statement, adding that it was aware of investigations that the South Korean government is conducting on the issue of North Korean coal.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been rebuffing various reports that authorities might have overlooked coal imports suspected of originating from North Korea. This could amount to a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that ban imports of North Korean coal and call for the seizure of ships suspected of engaging in illegal shipments.

The Russian Embassy in Seoul accused the South Korean government of not communicating with it on the coal investigation, according to several media reports on Wednesday.

In response to the reports, Noh Kyu-duk, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said at a briefing in Seoul on Thursday, “Our government has been taking the necessary diplomatic efforts to cooperate with Russia on the issue of North Korean coal imports.”

He clarified that Moscow “has a lot of channels” of communication. “We have been communicating the needed information through the necessary channels,” he said.

South Korean authorities began their own investigation into nine cases after a UN panel report last month said North Korean coal disguised as Russian exports were smuggled through South Korean ports last October.

A Foreign Ministry official said on Thursday that the investigation results will be announced “as soon as possible,” though he could not provide an exact date. “Customs authorities are working hard on this,” he said.

Despite ambitions to bolster inter-Korean relations in sports and humanitarian work, the South Korean government has been facing pressure from the United States to continue stringent sanctions on the North. Within South Korea, the opposition Liberty Korea Party, which maintains a hard-line stance on the North, has set up a task force to investigate possible breaches in oversight of ships with suspected North Korean coal.

Some U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican of Texas, are calling for extra sanctions on companies if they are implicated on transporting North Korean coal in violation of UN sanctions - even if those companies are South Korean.

“What we have been hearing from the U.S. government is that the South Korean government has been cooperating well on maritime interdiction and that we are a trustworthy partner,” a Foreign Ministry official said, adding that the two countries have been cooperating in the investigation.

The official said it was unlikely that Washington would look into unilateral sanctions on South Korean companies.

“We are working toward quickly completing the ongoing investigations and will be able to explain in detail the results of the investigation when we remit the case to the prosecutors,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday evening.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]