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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Updated Nov. 28 at 12:35 KST to include additional ownership details on the vessel provided by Equasis.
A Hong Kong company-owned, North Korean-flagged oil tanker was photographed earlier this month conducting what was suspected to be a ship-to-ship (STS) transfer in violation of UN sanctions, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) reported late Tuesday.
“Before dawn” on November 13, the Mu Bong 1 (IMO number: 8610461) “was lying alongside a small vessel of unknown nationality on the high seas (around 280km eastern offshore of Shanghai) in the East China Sea … [with] connected hoses,” according to the MOFA.
Due to the appearance of the situation, the report added that “following a comprehensive assessment, the Government of Japan strongly suspects that [the two vessels] conducted ship-to-ship transfers banned by United Nations Security Council Resolution.”
The MOFA has, in turn, “notified the Security Council Committee (Panel of Experts) of this incident and shared information with related countries.”
STS transfers were banned under UNSC Resolution 2375 passed in September 2017.
This week’s report was the 14th from Japan on North Korean STS transfers since the resolution came into effect, covering the 21st such individual instance of an STS transfer witnessed by Japanese and partner naval forces.
According to both previous reporting from NK News’s sister site NK Pro and the official website of North Korea’s own Maritime Administration, the Mu Bong 1 (무봉1) is owned by the Hong Kong Qianda Industry Co., Ltd (홍콩천달실업유한공사 or 香港千達實業有限公司).
An NK Pro report from November last year detailed that the company purchased the Mu Bong 1 sometime before January 2018 — a purchase and subsequent services to the DPRK which would also be in violation of UNSC Resolution 2270 passed in 2016.
The report also said that Qianda registration documents give a mailing address for the Korea Mubong Trading Company — a North Korean company which the PoE in their 2017 report said they were investigating.
The Mubong Trading Company was also listed in the Washington DC-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS)’s 2019 report “Lux & Loaded,” for having consigned 10 shipments from Russia of 37 vehicles including Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, and Lexus models between 2015 and 2017.
Maritime tracking and information portal Equasis.org says that mubong actually took over official ownership from Qianda in July 2019, though North Korea’s Maritime Administration still lists its owner as the Hong Kong company.
And while the Mu Bong 1 itself has not been sanctioned by the U.S. or UN as of yet, both have found evidence of sanctions-busting activities in the past.
The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) included the tanker in a list of “North Korean Vessels Capable of Engaging in Ship-to-Ship Transfers of Petroleum” in a report released in February 2018.
The August 2019 report of the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) in charge of investigating possible DPRK sanctions violations also included details of a previous STS transfer conducted by the tanker.
The report includes aerial imagery provided by a member state, likely the U.S., of what is labeled as the Mu Bong 1 and a 67-meter-long “unidentified tanker” connected side-by-side on April 15, 2019.
A map showing its tracked path from south of Shanghai and Wenzhou to North Korea’s west-coast city of Nampho is also included, as well as another aerial image of the ship just off of Nampho port days after the transfer.
The PoE recommended that the UN 1718 Committee designate the Mu Bong 1 and another vessel “for illicit transfers of petroleum products in violation of paragraph 5 of resolution 2397.”
Tuesday’s report from the Japanese MOFA was their first since a June report detailing a relay of STS transfers conducted by another North Korean tanker, the An San 1.
In the intervening months, the MOFA has continued to provide regular updates on the North Korean STS transfers “monitoring and surveillance activities” of the Japan Coast Guard and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, alongside partner nations Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, the UK, and the U.S.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Japan Ministry of Defense