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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
A sanctioned North Korean oil tanker has been photographed in the process of conducting suspected illegal ship-to-ship (STS) transfers at sea in relay fashion with two unidentified ships, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said in a statement Tuesday.
It is the third such instance the North Korean-flagged An San 1 has been observed conducting STS transfers by Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces since the ship was designated in March 2018 by the UN Security Council committee in charge of DPRK sanctions.
STS transfers at sea are known as one way North Korea is circumventing current sanctions restricting the flow of refined oil imports into the country, and the practice has resulted in increased surveillance efforts by Japan, the U.S., and other nations.
The latest transfers are said to have taken place between the An San 1 and “two small vessels of unknown nationality” over at least six separate transactions before dawn on May 13 and again after dark and until dawn on May 14, the MOFA release said.
The transfers were all conducted “around 400km” off the shore of Shanghai in the East China Sea, it added.
Images provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense show the An San 1 connected with the unidentified ship “A” by what appear to be a number of hoses at 0500 local time May 13, and then with unidentified ship “B” hours later at 0950.
The same ship “A” connected again that night before 1850, while ship “B” was shown in images connected to the An San 1 shortly after at 2000 local time.
Both repeated the process once more that night, starting with ship “A” at 0300 of May 14, and ship “B” at 0530, according to the timestamps provided in the report – totaling three instances for each unidentified ship and six for the An San 1 over the two days.
“Japan notified the Security Council Committee (Panel of Experts) of this incident and shared information with related countries,” the report added.
The An San 1 and its owner, the Korean Ansan Shipping Company, were first added to the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN) in February 2018.
A month later, the UN Security Council 1718 Sanctions Committee designed both the company and the ship, with the An San 1 being subject to assets freeze and prohibition from port entry to UN member states.
The An San 1 was then caught on camera by the Japanese military conducting suspected STS transfers in June 2018, also 350km off the shores of Shanghai in the East China Sea.
Its owners had apparently attempted to obscure its identity, however, as the Japanese government confirmed at the time that the newly-named “Hope Sea” taking part in the transfers was in fact the An San 1.
It was photographed by Japanese vessels in January 2019 again engaging in suspected STS transfers at sea 410km off the coast of Shanghai.
The U.S. State Department in April, following a 2+2 meeting between the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers, reaffirmed its commitment to work with Japan to conduct surveillance and take other measures to counter “illicit ship-to-ship transfers.”
And while the 1718 Committee’s 2019 Panel of Experts (PoE) report concluded there has been a “massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently sought to stress that Washington’s efforts remain strong.
“This is an enormous undertaking, a United States undertaking, to take down the ship to ship transfers. You should know that rogue regimes are difficult, they’ll move… it’s a big ocean out there,” he said.
“But you should know that your United States Government is working diligently to enforce those sanctions and working together with our partners in the region.”
President Donald Trump, for his part, said during a Briefing on Counterproliferation at the UNSC last fall that “illegal ship-to-ship transfers… must end immediately.”
Nations that have contributed patrol aircraft or naval vessels to work with Japan to monitor suspected STS activity in the region include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, the UK, and the U.S.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Japanese Ministry of Defense