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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean foreign ministry believes that “numerous” sanctions-violating ships entered ROK ports since last August, lawmaker Shim Jae-cheol revealed on Wednesday, with the country’s customs administration now reportedly investigating the cases.
The statement comes amid an investigation into how the then-Panama-registered Sky Angel and Sierra Leone-flagged Rich Glory ships were able to unload some 9000 tons of DPRK-produced coal at the South Korean ports of Incheon and Pohang in October last year.
Citing material provided by the Korea Customs Service, Shim, from the opposition Liberty Party of Korea, said other ships believed to have violated the UNSC resolutions on the DPRK may have entered South Korean ports.
“There are numerous cases (in addition to Rich Glory and Sky Angel) of vessels suspected of importing North Korean coal and others, which was notified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Korea Customs Service, since the relevant UN resolution on the North was adopted in August 2017,” Shim’s statement read.
UNSC resolution 2371, which stipulated the DPRK “shall not supply, sell or transfer, directly or indirectly, from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft, coal, iron and iron ore,” was approved on August 5 last year.
The Korea Customs Service reportedly said it couldn’t submit the relevant materials to the National Assembly, according to a statement provided by Shim, explaining that details on the current status and inspection process of vessels suspected of engaging in illicit activities are a “sensitive diplomatic and security-related issue.”
Shim’s requests for the report on findings of its investigation of Rich Glory and Sky Angel was also rejected by the organization, he said, as the cases are under investigation.
The lawmaker, citing the database provided by the Korea Customs Service, added Rich Glory and Sky Angel had entered South Korean ports 23 and 12 times respectively since August 2017.
When contacted by NK News on Wednesday, the Korea Customs Service declined to provide additional comments on the issue, though accepted that Shim’s claims were correct.
The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) told NK News on Wednesday that government does not open ongoing investigation on suspicious cases to the public, adding the details will be announced at an “appropriate time.”
The ministry pointed to the case of the still-interned Lighthouse Winmore, Koti, and Talent Ace as examples of it having released information once an investigation had concluded.
Seoul seized the Lighthouse Winmore and Koti in November and December last year – both were suspected of involvement in sanctioned ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products to North Korean vessels.
Talent Ace, formerly known as Xin Sheng Hai, was seized in mid-January and is under investigation for shipping North Korean coal to a third country.
Resolution 2397 stipulates that member states may seize and inspect any vessel in their ports or territorial waters if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe that the ship is involved in activities that contravene international sanctions against the DPRK.
Wednesday saw the foreign ministry stress that Seoul would punish relevant companies in accordance with UNSC resolutions and domestic law if they were confirmed to have violated UN resolutions.
Meanwhile, the South Korean foreign minister on Wednesday said Seoul will “faithfully implement sanctions on North Korea until it has confidence in the North’s complete denuclearization” at a policy briefing at the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee.
“In order to prevent the occurrence of issues related to sanctions on the North in the process of inter-Korean exchanges, we will maintain close cooperation with the U.S. and the international community including UN,” Minister Kang Kyung-wha said in a ministry report to the committee.
During the policy briefing, the South Korean ministry said the investigation authorities have identified shipowners and consignors linked to the Rich Glory and Sky Angel, but declined to share further information.
“But I’ve heard that they have considerable difficulties in proving that the [coal] was produced in North Korea,” Kang said, adding that Seoul will make an announcement after completing the investigation.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: South Korean government