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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
The Japanese government on Tuesday published photos dated May 19 of what it says likely shows a sanctioned North Korean vessel engaging in prohibited ship-to-ship (STS) transfers in the East China Sea.
Images, taken from a Japanese Maritime Defense Force P-3C aircraft, show a North Korean oil tanker alongside a smaller vessel with pumps or hosing connecting the two, which would be typical of STS transfers involving fuel products.
“At midnight on May 19, 2018, a P-3C aircraft of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (Fleet Air Wing 1 P-3C : Kanoya) found that JI SONG 6 (IMO number: 8898740), North Korean-flagged tanker, was lying alongside a small vessel of unknown nationality flying a flag that seemed like Chinese-flag, on the high sea (around 350 km southeastern offshore of Shanghai) in the East China Sea,” a press release on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website read.
“Judging from the fact that the two vessels lay alongside each other with their lights turned on at night and connected hoses, both vessels could have been engaged in some type of activity. Following a comprehensive assessment, the Government of Japan strongly suspects that they conducted ship-to-ship transfers banned by UNSCR,” it added.
On September 11, 2017, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2375, which, among other measures, prohibited all STS transfers.
STS transfers linked to North Korea typically involve the transfer of oil products, which are also subject to caps under UNSC resolutions.
On February 23, the U.S. Department of the Treasury unveiled a significant number of designations against North Korean shipping companies and vessels it said were involved in such activities.
The Ji Song 6 and company that owns and operates the vessel – Pyongchong Shipping & Marine – were both sanctioned on that date.
“We will do everything to stop these ship-to-ship transfers,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at the time.
On March 30, the UNSC also designated Pyongchong Shipping & Marine and the Ji Song 6 for its involvement in STS transfers in January.
According to the NK Pro Vessel Tracker, the Ji Song 6 last broadcast its Automatic Identification Signal (AIS) in November 2017 but has had it switched off since then.
While the smaller vessel seen in images published by Japan on Tuesday does show a Chinese flag, its origins were not fully identified by the Japanese government, though it has notified the Chinese Government of its findings.
Japan also said it has notified the UNSC of the matter.
The practice of STS transfers was also the subject of multiple investigations by a UN Panel of Experts (PoE) tasked with monitoring DPRK sanctions implementation and violations.
In its 2018 report, the PoE identified three areas where North Korean vessels engaged in such activity, which included “waters off the port of Wonsan; Nampo; and international waters between the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea.”
In order to combat such practices, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have deployed military vessels and aircraft to assist Japan in monitoring key areas where such activities have taken place.
Japan has previously published similar images and findings since the beginning of 2018.
Featured Image: Japanese Ministry of Defense