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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
South Korea exported over three hundred tons of petroleum products to North Korea in 2018, data obtained by NK News shows, though failed to report the transfers to the 1718 Sanctions Committee as required by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2397.
The export of the petroleum – subject to strict UN regulations and reporting requirements – was provided despite the U.S. warning in September 2018 that Pyongyang had exceeded “four times the annual quota” of allowed petroleum imports in the first eight months of 2018 alone.
“According to the Korea Customs Service data, a total of 342.9 tons of petroleum products (HS 2710) were exported to North Korea in the year 2018,” a Ministry of Unification (MOU) spokesperson told NK News on Monday, noting that 32.3 tons were subsequently “brought back to the South.”
Of the exported petroleum volume, “140 tons were used for the family reunion event and the oil used for the joint on-site survey of railways,” the spokesperson said, leaving an unspecified amount for “repairing and renovation work of the inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong”.
While the amounts fell well short of North Korea’s allowed import cap of 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products each year – representing just 0.51% of that total allowance – South Korea failed to report details about the transfers or recipients in the manner required by UN rules.
“Where the Moon administration gets into trouble… is with the requirement that it notify the 1718 Committee every 30 days of how much oil it has sent “along with information about all the parties to the transaction,” which can’t be (to) designated persons or entities,” said Joshua Stanton, a lawyer and blogger who has helped Congress draft North Korea sanctions legislation.
A chart maintained by the 1718 Committee listed no South Korean refined petroleum exports to North Korea during 2018, Stanton pointed out, while diplomatic sources confirmed to NK News that Seoul declined to report the transfers to the UN according to the 30-day reporting requirement in UNSC 2397.
Asked on multiple occasions specifically why South Korea ignored the reporting rules and how it had been able to confirm that recipients of petroleum were not UNSC-designated persons or entities, both the ROK foreign ministry and MOU declined to provide a direct answer.
Instead, the two ministries insisted that the ROK had consulted with the international community and UN sanctions committee on a “transparent” basis, “so that inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation projects can be carried out in accordance with the framework of sanctions against North Korea.”
The U.S. Department of State could not comment on the issue due to an ongoing furlough, while the 1718 Committee previously told NK News that negotiations surrounding exemptions are confidential.
The ROK government’s view of sanctions transparency falls short of what is expected by UNSC resolutions in two other issue areas in 2018, analysis by NK News suggests, suggesting that Seoul has chosen to implement UNSC sanctions on North Korea on a selective and often inconsistent basis.
Customs data cited by Reuters last August, for example, showed that the ROK sent nearly one million dollars of construction equipment and material specifically sanctioned by the UN to North Korea, in order to renovate the Kaesong liaison office.
“It does not give any economic gain to North Korea, so we are concluding that it does not damage the objective of the sanctions,” a MOFA spokesperson told Reuters of its decision not to seek a UN sanctions exemption to facilitate the transfer of sanctioned construction equipment and material to the project site.
No exemptions exist in UNSC 2397, or any international sanctions, for sector-prohibited goods to be transferred into North Korea in cases when “economic gain” is not created.
Similarly, exemptions did not exist to allow a South Korean cargo plane to transport Kim Jong Un’s gift of two tons of Songni mushrooms to Seoul last September, which fall under the purview of HS Code 07 (vegetables), which North Korea is currently banned from exporting under UNSC 2397.
NK News understands from the diplomatic sources that Seoul chose neither to seek a sanctions exemption nor was provided one by the 1718 Committee to receive the mushrooms from Kim Jong Un, with the implication that the UNSC rules were violated as a result.
Despite the available evidence, a MOFA spokesperson said Seoul’s actions were “in accordance with the framework of sanctions against DPRK.”
“The ROK government believes that the exchanges… have been contributing to achieving the purposes of the relevant UNSCRs.”
Yet the lack of effort to follow UNSC regulations surrounding the provision of petroleum to the North, the transfer of sanctioned construction equipment and materials to the Kaesong liaison office, and receipt of Songni mushrooms stands in contrast to at least four requests by Seoul since November to gain exemptions for far less significant forms of inter-Korean cooperation.
On November 24, for example, the UNSC permitted Seoul to proceed with a joint survey of inter-Korean railroads, while on November 30 the UNSC approved the Ministry of National Defense (MND) to provide supplies to the North in order to modernize an inter-Korean military communication line.
On December 12, Seoul then begun talks with the U.S. surrounding exemptions to allow video reunions of separated families, while on December 25 the UNSC approved Seoul to conduct a limited inter-Korean railroad groundbreaking ceremony the very next day.
One specialist said the inconsistencies in approach meant that “South Korea is treading a tricky path”.
“Partly it is to do with the manifest difficulty of trying to work with North Korea, and no doubt also because of factors internal to South Korean government institutions,” said Christopher Green, a DPRK specialist at the International Crisis Group.
“But it is also because international sanctions are as much about politics as about the law.”
As a result, issues like Seoul’s decision not to seek exemptions for projects like the Kaesong liaison office may have boiled down to a perception that “nobody would move to block a project whose stated purpose was facilitating inter-Korean dialogue and de-escalation, and which would not, ultimately, lead to mass transfers of hard currency to North Korea,” he said.
South Korea is also under increased pressure from North Korean counterparts to disregard sanctions and speed up cooperation.
A state media editorial as recently as Monday slammed Seoul’s “indecisive attitude” towards broadening inter-Korean engagement and condemned its plans to seek the exemptions that would allow the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).
“The entire nation cannot repress its disappointment over the South Korean authorities’ indecisive attitude of walking on eggshells around the U.S.,” that commentary, published by the outer-track Uriminzokkiri outlet, read.
Others, however, warn of the broader ramifications of Seoul’s approach.
“Yet again, the Moon administration seems to be sliding the thin end of the wedge into Kaesong to establish a precedent for a more substantial, long-term practice of violating the sanctions,” said Stanton about Seoul’s export of petroleum to North Korea in 2018.
“The amount isn’t the problem; the precedent is.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: MOU