How a new UN sanctions report reveals the limits of Chinese cooperation
Biegun says Beijing working with the U.S., but images suggest DPRK coal smuggling in Chinese waters
Speaking to students at his alma mater last week, U.S. point man on North Korea Stephen Biegun told his audience that China was supportive of Washington’s efforts with North Korea.
China was giving Pyongyang the right signals, Biegun said, and Beijing had told him it would keep issues arising from U.S.-China trade tensions separate from DPRK policy.
“My Chinese counterpart told me when we first met several months ago, that notwithstanding the other areas of tension in the U.S. China relationship, that China would compartmentalize North Korea and their cooperation on that,” Biegun said.
“I’ve told them that we would accept that until we have evidence to suggest otherwise and we don’t have any evidence to suggest otherwise.”
But Biegun’s comments came just 24 hours after the release of the UN Panel of Expert’s (PoE) mid-term report, which indicated that, in some respects, Beijing may have reached its threshold on cooperation.
While Chinese individuals and companies are never absent from PoE reports, the latest report also used photographs provided by “a member state” to highlight possible sanctions breaches in Chinese waters.
Under UN Resolution 2371 passed in August 2017, member states are required to be on the lookout for North Korea coal and iron transfers in their territories.
“All States shall prohibit the procurement of such material from the DPRK by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of the DPRK,” the resolution reads.
The UN document also gave member states 30 days from the date of passage to allow North Korean coal and iron into their “territories” to allow existing sales contracts to play out, though after which the shipments would be prohibited.
The issue of territory is salient given how the DPRK has taken to transferring coal and oil in international waters using vessels flagged in North Korea or in other poorly-monitored registries and jurisdictions.
But photographs provided to the PoE show vessels registered in the DPRK and others linked to Pyongyang hauling coal into Chinese waters, with one image also apparently showing a prohibited ship-to-ship transfer.
Beijing’s response to the images appears indicative that China has reached its limit with regards to sanctions enforcement and appears unwilling to take action to limit probable coal smuggling within its own waters.
“The Member State provided to the Panel images showing vessels loaded with coal off the Ningbo-Zhoushan port area, which it identified as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-associated vessels,” the PoE wrote.
“China replied that ‘the information provided by the Panel lacks timeliness and cannot lead to on-site investigation. The information of relevant vessels is ambiguous and lacks accuracy, which does not constitute a full evidence chain or basis for further investigation.'”
Beijing also told the Panel that all the coal vessels berthed at the local port have the correct documentation and that the coal offloaded there is not from the DPRK.
But China’s response did not mention possible transfers happening at sea or the DPRK-flagged ships operating in the area, instead calling the Panel’s assertions from satellite imagery evidence “imprudent” — not typically the type of vernacular employed by a cooperative partner.
Yet the frequency of the unusual visits to the waters near Shanghai by DPRK ships and other associated vessels negates the need for “timeliness” and even open-source methods afford the ability to track suspicious maritime behavior and practices.
Numerous NK Pro reports have independently noted an apparent uptick in unusual vessel activity in the Shanghai area, with UN-sanctioned vessels disappearing near the Chinese coast, or employing obfuscation practices outlined by the PoE and the U.S. Department of Treasury.
It’s unclear then why Beijing – which likely has significantly more complete data – would not view the PoE’s evidence as sufficient for further investigation.
Fueled by Russia
While Biegun did not mention Russia during his discussion at the University of Michigan, the latest PoE report also indicated similar breaches may be occurring in Russian territory.
Previous panel reports have noted how ports in the Russian Far East were transit points for North Korean coal, which would then be moved to other destinations around Asia, including nearby South Korea.
But the latest PoE report also appeared to show a North Korean oil tanker headed to the Russian Far East to receive oil products at sea.
UN Resolution 2397 passed in December 2017 included similar wording on DPRK refined petroleum imports to the provisions covering coal passed a few months earlier.
“Member States shall prohibit the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK, through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels, aircraft, pipelines, rail lines, or vehicles, and whether or not originating in their territories, of all refined petroleum products,” the resolution reads.
The images included in the PoE report indicate that a sanctioned North Korean vessel conducted a ship-to-ship transfer with an unknown tanker in the Russian Far East in March this year, though the precise location is difficult to gauge.
Russia’s foreign ministry did not reply to a request for comment on the transfer or whether it had taken action to prevent further smuggling.
But Moscow’s Ambassador to the DPRK did address North Korean sanctions breaches in an interview with Sputnik published on the same day as the PoE report’s release.
“Accusations that Russia may be among the countries through which North Korea is trying to bypass UN Security Council sanctions regarding energy supplies and coal trade are unfounded,” Matsegora said in comments translated by Urdu Point.
As with Beijing however, Matsegora appeared not to address the issue of ship-to-ship transfers in Russian waters, focusing his comments instead on DPRK vessel port calls in Russia.
Between them, the cases highlight that Chinese and Russian cooperation on sanctions might extend as far their land borders, but highlight reticence to pursue investigations past the shoreline.
This type of reluctance is likely welcomed by North Korea, which is well used to pushing against the sanctions boundaries and adept at testing how far countries are willing to go to curtail its illicit activities.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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