Two of six North Korean vessels which entered a Chinese port on April 20 had open cargo bays and were unloading coal at the facility, satellite imagery taken as the ships were docked shows.

The 4600-tonne Pu Hae was one of several North Korean ships which entered the port over the course of two days, a previous report from NK News revealed, despite UN Resolutions and Chinese law currently prohibiting the import of the DPRK’s coal.

But satellite imagery taken while the North Korean freighter was in port appears to show the ship with its cargo bays open, a strong indication that the ships were unloading cargo.

The Pue Hae in Jingtang port | Image: Planet Labs

The ship in the image has the same number of bay doors as the Pu Hae, while ship location data provided by vessel tracking site Marine Traffic also tallies with the ship’s position in the satellite image.

The same photo also captured another ship – the Ryon Hwa 2 – in a nearby pier. The cargo vessel also has its hold open, with adjacent piles of cargo.

“Both ships have their holds open, while the Ryon Hwa 2 has several piles of what appear to be bulk coal next to it, implying that the ship has been unloaded but the coal has not yet been moved into the general coal stockpile,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst told NK Pro.

The Ryon Hwa 2 in at a nearby pier with adjacent piles of cargo | Image: Planet Labs

“These ships are clearly moving cargo judging by the images provided,” confirmed Sam Chambers, editor of Splash, one of the world’s most read shipping news sites.

Neither vessel’s previous history does them much credit: the Ryon Hwa 2 is suspected of smuggling illicit cargos from North Korea by the U.S. government, and the Pu Hae was formerly owned by Li Anshan, who, according to the UN Panel of Experts, has helped the DPRK smuggle weapons.

BEIJING WEIGHS IN

Beijing’s Foreign Ministry twice responded to reports of the vessels entering Jingtang Port. On April 21, a foreign ministry spokesman said the ships were allowed to enter the ports on humanitarian grounds, as some had been waiting outside the Jingtang Port since February.

Nearly a week later on April 26, the Foreign Ministry confirmed the North Korean ships had unloaded coal, though again claimed it was on humanitarian grounds.

“Considering the boats loaded with coal from the DPRK are severely lacking in supplies, China allows them to dock and unload cargo out of humanitarian concerns, but this does not mean in any sense that we allow the import of the coal. The two are different,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing.

But the Foreign Ministry did not elaborate on what will happen to the coal, or what humanitarian concerns would necessitate six ships leaving their cargos at Jingtang dock almost simultaneously.

“Yes, this does seem like an odd claim. So they are unloading the coal and leaving it in a pile at the Chinese port? What would the humanitarian reasons be?” David Von Hippel, a senior researcher at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, told NK Pro.

With the vessels less than 40 hours sailing from North Korea and only a short distance from numerous other ports where they could receive basic supplies, the Foreign Ministry’s statement also did not mention why the ships couldn’t have sailed elsewhere before their stores ran dangerously low.

It’s also unclear who now owns the coal, and if its owners were paid or if the cargos were abandoned, even though they likely could have been used in North Korea.

“One would think that the coal could have a use in the DPRK … Maybe it’s effectively in storage waiting for an import slot to open up? Though under the UN sanctions I suppose that could be not until next year,” Von Hippel said, though adding he has not specifically researched the DPRK’s coal export practices.

Further complicating China’s position was the arrival of the Mi Yang 5 at the same port on April 21. A previous NK News report indicated the vessel had arrived near Jingtang, after having left there two weeks earlier and returned to the DPRK in the intervening period.

But ship tracking data shows the ship has also been allowed to enter the facility and is now headed back to the DPRK. The 3600-tonne freighter was likely not waiting outside the port long enough to deplete its supplies.

The Mi Yang 5’s position on April 27, before leaving Jingtang Port | Image: Marine Traffic

Although Beijing has claimed it is in line with its sanctions obligations, a report from the UK’s ITV News aired on Thursday showing that the Chinese border remains porous to overland coal shipments.

The video footage shows a train loaded with coal heading over the border into China at Dandong, one the major trade hubs between the two countries. The reporters also tweeted a picture of the train, and said experts had confirmed it probably contained anthracite, the North’s primary coal export.

“Sure looks like a coal train! But the volume moved by trains is less than by ships. Still, if they are already at the annual limit, that would seem to preclude additional shipments,” Von Hippel added.

The footage appears in tension with Beijing’s claims that no North Korean coal is making its way across the border. Previous NK Pro reports have also indicated that additional vessels were moving between DPRK and Chinese coal facilities, while exports from the North’s Rason port also seem to be ongoing.

Additional reporting by Hamish Macdonald

Featured Image: Planet Labs