Satellite imagery taken the day before last week’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shows vessels laden with coal at North Korea’s Nampho Port.

The image, taken on February 26 by Planet Labs’ Sky Sat platform, shows two ships docked at Nampho’s coal handling area.

The photos captured one larger ship and another smaller vessel using two different piers at the terminal, both have their cargo doors open with mounds of what appears to be coal inside the holds.

The Nampho terminal also has numerous coal deposits nearby, with trucks or a conveyor system carrying the mineral to ships waiting at the nearby berths.

UN resolutions currently prohibit countries from importing the North’s coal, along with a host of other DPRK produced minerals, raw materials, machinery, and industrial equipment.

Image taken on February 26 shows two vessels with open cargo holds in North Korea’s Nampho Port | Photo: Planet Labs

But the image — which also may have captured a Vietnamese oil tanker at the DPRK’s nearby oil terminal — indicates that some activity at the port continues, despite the prohibition on exports.

Although it is difficult to ascertain the direction of trade from satellite imagery alone, North Korea does not typically import coal from abroad, while the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) previously identified Nampho as a point of origin for sanctioned coal exports.

In their 2018 report, the PoE investigated numerous cases of coal smuggling, listing Nampho as the start point for illicit shipments destined for numerous countries around Asia.

According to the PoE, Nampho was the starting location for 17 listed cases out of 23 included in the PoE report, indicating it remains an active hub for the DPRK’s sanctions-breaking coal trade.

In most of the cases, vessels typically did not broadcast their locations to international tracking systems while docked in the area, and often carried the coal to nearby foreign ports for transhipment.

The vessels then obscured the origin of the coal using numerous techniques and evasion patterns, before delivering it numerous ports in Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Russia, and even South Korea.

“The Panel found extensive use of a combination of multiple evasion tactics…” the PoE’s 2018 report reads, adding that these included “indirect routes, detours, loitering, false documentation, trans-shipment through third countries and manipulation of Automatic Identification System signals and destinations/estimated times of arrival, as well as changes to the class, length and draft of the vessels.”

Disagreement over the breadth and scope of UN sanctions was one of the primary factors contributing to the Hanoi summit ending without a deal over how to proceed with North Korea’s denuclearization.

According to both Pyongyang and Washington, North Korea asked for economic sanctions to be rolled back, with the DPRK later specifying it had requested international restrictions passed throughout 2016 and 2017 to be removed.

The UN first began restricting the North’s coal exports in 2016, though the original measures were littered with loopholes that allowed the trade to continue much as before.

But in mid-2017, the UN flatly prohibited the import of all North Korean coal, which likely coincided with the DPRK transposing techniques learned from its weapon smuggling programs over into the mineral trade.

“The consistency and similarity of the tactics suggest that they are part of a centralized strategy on the part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to evade the commodities ban,” the PoE wrote.

Edited by Oliver Hotham