Recent sanctions against North Korea’s kerosene imports are unlikely to have the intended effect, given domestic production capabilities, according to a report from the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.
On March 2, the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 2270 which included a clause banning the export of kerosene to North Korea.
“(All) States shall prevent the sale or supply, by their nationals or from their territories or using their flag vessels or aircraft, of aviation fuel, including aviation gasoline, naptha-type jet fuel, kerosene-type jet fuel, and kerosene-type rocket fuel, whether or not originating in their territory, to the territory of the DPRK,” paragraph 31 of the new resolution reads.
But the report questions the effectiveness of the sanction, pointing to the DPRK’s refinery capabilities and estimated capacities. North Korea could produce the necessary rocket fuel and lower grade jet fuel for the military by refining crude oil flows from abroad.
While some reports indicate that one of North Korea’s refineries is currently mothballed, the DPRK still may have a small standalone refinery on its west coast, in addition to facilities within other larger chemical complexes.
“(The) capacity certainly exists, for example, at the Hamhung Chemical Plant, to produce high-octane and pure distillates. It is highly unlikely that the DPRK obtains its rocket fuel from external suppliers, and even if all crude oil and refined product imports were cut off at the border, the DPRK almost certainly has the domestic capability to produce rocket fuel,” the report reads.
It’s also possible the DPRK could refine various kinds of kerosene from coal, of which it has abundant supplies.
Previous NK News analysis has also shown that oil flows from Russia have increased, with the DPRK dedicating a number of tankers to shipping oil and oil products from Russian terminals to North Korea’s west coast.
“We conclude that implementation of paragraph 31 will have effectively zero marginal impact on the DPRK’s ability to produce fuel for long range rockets,” the report continues.
The report estimates that installed refinery in capacity could produce enough kerosene to meet the military’s needs, but leave a 38,500-ton deficit when compared to total kerosene consumption in North Korea each year.
With the North Korean military’s primacy in terms of fuel and resource allocation, paragraph 31 of the sanction could affect unintended targets.
“It appears likely, therefore, that the main impacts will be on households using kerosene for lighting, a small amount of cooking, and a directly proportional amount of space heating in winter time resulting from the lighting and cooking usages, that is, by ordinary North Koreans,” the report adds.
Resolution 2270 does include a humanitarian provision saying that kerosene could be exported on a case by case basis, as long as special provisions for monitoring were allowed.
Assessing whether or not the sanction is effective is also challenging, without on the ground inspections, evidence would be inferential at best.
“The main (indicator) would be if (the North’s) military jets began to buzz around like blowflies instead of their currently very low rate of exercising. That would mean they are either drawing down stocks, or using most of what went to non-military uses before a putative sanctions effect. But it would not prove sanctions are failing. That’s a more complicated set of flows,” Peter Hayes, one of the report’s authors told NK News.
“Or, if the DPRK began to import large numbers of kerosene lamps – that might suggest household use is rising dramatically,” Hayes said.
The UN sanctions comes amid a time of very low kerosene exports from China – traditionally the North’s largest energy patron – and North Korea. Deliveries have hovered at around a few hundred tonnes a month or less since March 2014, when the last relatively large shipment was exported to the DPRK.
But Chinese fuel exports to the DPRK have been under scrutiny ever since December 2013, when Beijing apparently ceased deliveries of crude oil to the North.
The move was viewed by some skepticism by North Korea watchers, and two years on no accompanying reports of a shortage have emerged. The disappearance of crude from China’s export figures has further fueled concerns over the accuracy of China’s energy exports to the DPRK.
“(It) could be that the Chinese simply don’t report for political reasons at central level; or the provincial authorities or port authorities ‘forget.’ Or, the DPRK may have cut back its domestic use for households drastically. Or some or all of these. We don’t know,” Hayes said.