Reports that China is blocking North Korean ships and coal shipments by sea have yet to filter through to numerous Chinese ports, where trade appears to be business as usual, data from Marine Traffic and satellite imagery show.

The NK News ships tracker showed numerous vessels headed from coal ports in China to the DPRK in the last two weeks, when the first reports of ship embargoes began to circulate. But since the UN’s most recent resolution was passed on March 2, the exact status of North Korean ships when entering ports across China has been unclear.

Resolution 2270 contains a list of vessels that should be treated as assets of DPRK weapons smuggling company, it also contains provisions on North Korean coal and mineral exports, and prevents North Koreans ships from sailing with flags from other countries.

Yet some media reports indicated that some Chinese ports had banned all North Korean vessels, going above and beyond the requirements of the resolution.

The Chinese government was quick to deny the claims and reprimanded foreign media for fabricating stories

Ship tracking software also – for a while – showed unusual concentrations of DPRK ships at a number of ports, though ship inspections conducted by Chinese port authorities with supposed embargoes contradicted the reports, adding to the confusion.

The Chinese government was quick to deny the claims and reprimanded foreign media for fabricating stories during a regular press briefing on March 23.

The Boun 1 in Longkou, after which it returned to Nampho. Image: Marine Traffic and Google Earth

The Boun 1 in Longkou, after which it returned to Nampho. Image: Marine Traffic and Google Earth

RESOLVED?

At first glance, UN Resolution 2270 takes a tough stance on shipments of coal and other minerals from North Korea.

“(The resolution decides) that the DPRK shall not supply, sell or transfer, directly or indirectly, from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft, coal, iron, and iron ore, and that 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,” paragraph 29 of the resolution reads.

But several commentators noticed that subsequent paragraphs soften the stance on exports, allowing transactions that would be “exclusively for livelihood purposes” not related to the DPRK’s weapons programs.

The exception could allow for trade to continue, making enforcement at ground level without governmental guidelines difficult.

Port authorities who handle millions of tonnes of coal a year would likely not consider investigations into the financial or ownership frameworks over a particular coal delivery as within their job description. Nor have any clarifications yet come from above on what a livelihood exception means, or how it should be enforced.

A blanket ban on all ships carrying coal could be one way to approach the problem in the short term, and a March 24 report from the Seoul based Daily NK said it was in the works.

“The news (of the ban) suddenly arrived as a unilateral announcement from China two days ago, leading to chaos at the commerce ministry,” an unnamed source told Daily NK. “Cadres have been unable to decide whether to turn around all of the other ships at sea, on top of the coal and iron ore vessels that are still awaiting orders after being refused port entry at Yingkou.”

However, ship inspection records indicate that so far, a full ban on North Korean ships at Yingkou has not occurred or if it did, it was short-lived.

Media reports claimed the embargoes began on March 16, but data from the Asia’s Port State Control (PSC) shows six inspections on ships with North Korean flags in Chinese ports since then, the two most recent at Yingkou. Ship inspections do not occur every time a vessel sails into port, so the actual number of visits is almost certainly higher.

Neither of the vessels inspected in Yingkou were shipping coal, which is transported in vessels called bulk carriers, but the data shows North Korea’s coal fleets have been busy at nearby ports and others around China.

BULKING UP

Blocking North Korean access to a small number of Chinese coal ports, though not to others a short distance away would fall short of a unilateral ban from Beijing, and would not stop North Korean coal flowing into China.

But it would be relatively easy for China to bar all ships with North Korean flagged bulk carriers from entering Chinese ports: There are only two, according to the Marine Traffic’s database.

One is the already sanctioned Ryong Rim, a vessel included in the 27 ship blacklist in Resolution 2270. The inclusion means the ship should already be barred from entering foreign ports, and potentially make it subject to seizure if it did.

The other is the Fertility 9, which changed to a North Korean flag in January, though was previously registered in Tuvalu.

Data from Marine Traffic and the NK News ship tracker show that Fertility 9’s recent flag change did not prevent it from docking at coal facility in Nantong on March 22. It remained there for two days before setting sail back to North Korea. At the time of writing the vessel is outside North Korea’s West Sea Barrage.

The Fertility 9 in Nantong on March 24. Image: Marine Traffic and Google Earth

The Fertility 9 in Nantong on March 24. Image: Marine Traffic and Google Earth

Other bulk carriers may be incorrectly categorized. Two infamous examples are the Chong Chon Gang and the Mu Du Bong, which could be capable of carrying coal though are also included in the sanctions black list. One is impounded in Mexico and the other disappeared in late 2014.

At the time of writing, one ship classified more generally as a cargo vessel is currently moored in Bayuquan’s coal port. The North Korean-flagged Jang Jin Gang arrived in the area on March 30, and there were no indications from its positional data that it had problems entering the port.

More than 20 similarly flagged vessels can be seen around North Korean ports, and four of them have completed trips from Chinese coal facilities and returned to DPRK in the last two weeks

The remainder of North Korea’s bulkers are a little harder to identify, as they are not registered in North Korea. This is common practice generally in the maritime industry and is even more so among bulk carriers, where a large percentage of the global fleet is registered in Panama, Hong Kong and a handful of other countries.

More than 20 similarly flagged vessels can be seen around North Korean ports, and four of them have completed trips from Chinese coal facilities and returned to DPRK in the last two weeks. The lack of a North Korean flag may make it harder to identify the vessels for port authorities, but would also now put their registering countries in breach of UN sanctions.

“(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 second half of paragraph 29 reads.

Should the vessels not be covered by the subsequent livelihood exception, and if they did deliver coal to China, the ships could be in breach of multiple parts of the newest UN resolution.

The Jan Jing Gang currently in Bauyquan. Image Credit: Marine Traffic and Google Earth

The Jan Jing Gang currently in Bauyquan. Image Credit: Marine Traffic and Google Earth

“The flag states are the ones that have the most legal authority over ships, so presumably, the idea was to go after the states that register that ships and obligate them to stop the traffic. Elsewhere, UNSCR 2270 bans the registration of North Korean vessels,” attorney and author at the One Free Korea blog Joshua Stanton told NK News.

The bulk carrier visits highlight the difficulty in applying resolutions over shipping, where a large number of moving parts across several administrative and legislative levels create challenges for enforcement. Further complications arise when North Korea actively uses maritime loopholes to avoid sanctions.

Renaming ships, changing their flags and shifting them between numerous paper companies can dissolve ties to Pyongyang, and create space around the sometimes already vague wording in sanctions documents.

Beijing dismissed reports of a blanket embargo on North Korean ships on March 23, but apparently has more work to do in the other direction. While new UN resolutions no doubt take time to filter through to water level, amid the flat out denials and conflicting media reports North Korean coal is likely still making its way across the Yellow Sea.