A U.S.-sanctioned Russian vessel which was last week reported as being stranded in South Korea has since made its way back to Vladivostok, the NK Pro ship tracker shows.
Location information for other designated vessels owned by the same company also indicates they had no issue leaving South Korea around the same time, despite being under the same set of U.S. sanctions.
The ship’s return to Russia waters indicates that some companies in South Korea are less risk averse than others, and will provide assistance to sanctioned ships and companies despite warnings from Washington.
A report from Radio Free Asia (RFA) published in late November reported that one ship called the Sevastopol was having trouble securing fuel as its designated status was scaring off potential fuel providers.
The cargo ship’s owner, the Vladivostok-based Gudzon Shipping Company, was also sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which said it had aided North Korea’s smuggling operations.
OFAC said one of Gudzon’s ships had “conducted two ship-to-ship transfers of oil for the benefit of North Korea, including 1,500 tons of oil to the North Korea-flagged M/V Chong Rim 2 (IMO 8916293) and 2,000 tons of oil to the North Korea-flagged M/V Chon Ma San (IMO 8660313).”
“The ultimate buyer was UN- and U.S.-designated Taesong Bank, a North Korean entity subordinate to the UN- and U.S.-designated Workers’ Party of Korea Office 39, which engages in illicit economic activities for North Korean leadership,” an OFAC press release accompanying the designation reads.
Speaking to RFA, one of Gudzon’s employees identified only as Aleksey said none of the larger South Korean oil companies would provide the Sevastopol with the necessary fuel to reach the Russian Far East.
The employee, who RFA said was one of Gudzon’s directors, added Gudzon would try and purchase oil from one of the smaller South Korean companies, apparently succeeding as the Sevastopol was back in Russia four days after the RFA article’s publication.
South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries confirmed to NK News that Gudzon had been able to purchase enough fuel to get the Sevastopol home, though neither it nor Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) knew who sold it to the sanctioned company.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not know who supplied fuel to Sevastopol and it is not a matter the Korean government is obligated to know,” a MOFA representative told NK News.
The reticence of South Korean companies to assist an OFAC-designated vessel seems understandable given a joint advisory from the Treasury Department and U.S. Coast Guard issued in February, which threatened to pursue those violating North Korean shipping sanctions.
“OFAC investigates apparent violations of its regulations and maintains enforcement authority as outlined in its Economic Sanctions Enforcement Guidelines,” the advisory reads.
“Persons that violate U.S. sanctions with respect to North Korea can be subject to civil monetary penalties equal to the greater of twice the value of the underlying transaction or $289,238, per each violation.”
Providing fuel to OFAC designated ships could potentially fall within the U.S. Department of Treasury’s remit, though Washington has yet to issue any DPRK-related sanctions against South Korean companies or individuals.
“In theory, the U.S. Government has the ability to sanction or take other punitive action against individuals and entities, wherever they reside, who assist parties already on U.S. sanctions lists,” Andrea Berger, a Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), told NK News.
But the South Korean companies’ unwillingness to transact with a designated ship appears far from universal, with other members of Gudzon’s fleet apparently calling in at South Koreans ports at around the same time the Sevastopol was stranded there.
The 5820-tonne Partizan left Busan area on November 20, even while the Sevastopol waited nearby, and another of Gudzon’s ships called Bogatyr conducted a similar journey in October apparently without issue.
Both vessels may have had the required fuel to complete their journeys, though assuming they docked in a South Korean port, each would likely need to pay the normal fees and dues required when entering into a port and making use of the facilities.
When contacted by NK News, Gudzon Shipping declined to comment on the Sevastopol or its sister ships making use of South Korean ports, and did not answer questions about who was providing them with fuel.
South Korea’s foreign ministry added that U.S. sanctions enforcement was not under its remit and that its interactions with the Sevastopol only went as far as making sure the UN’s measures were enforced.
“The Korean government has no legal obligation to comply with U.S. sanctions, but it was merely looking into the matter (concerning the Sevastopol) to check if there was any breach of the UN sanctions in consideration of the Republic of Korea’s relationship with the U.S.,” a MOFA representative told NK News.
MOFA’s position broadly reflects Seoul’s typically lax approach to vessels owned by companies under U.S. sanctions or those with seemingly clear ties to North Korea which still regularly visit South Korea’s shores.
Other ships owned by the OFAC designated Liberty Shipping appear to have no issues during their regular visits to South Korean ports, while the NK Pro ship tracker shows a vessel with ties to North Korea’s weapon smugglers on Friday arriving near Pyeongtaek on the South’s western coast.
Edited by Oliver Hotham