A large freighter left a coal terminal at Rason port at the start of April and sailed to a coal terminal near Hong Kong, analysis of ship tracking data and satellite imagery indicates.

The Panama-flagged Neng Yuan is very large by the standards of vessels that typically visit North Korea, able to carry to over 77,000 tonnes of bulk cargos like coal and measuring nearly 230 meters long.

Satellite imagery of Rason taken on April 1 shows a ship bearing a strong resemblance to the Neng Yuan docked at the port’s coal terminal.

A large vessel docked at Rason’s coal terminal on April 1 I Image: Planet Labs

Comparing the satellite images of the vessel leaving the area with images of the Neng Yuan on vessel photography database shipspotting.com shows the same number and color of cargo bays. The ship’s length and breadth on the satellite image also closely match those provided by vessel tracking site Marine Traffic.

“Imagery supports those measurements, to within a reasonable margin of error,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst told NK Pro.

A vessel with the same number of loading bays as the Neng Yuan near Rason port I Image: Planet Labs

After leaving North Korean waters the 77,000-tonne freighter sailed southwards for Hong Kong. After its arrival in the area the Neng Yuan docked at a coal terminal up river.

Zoomed in image of the vessel I Image: Planet Labs

Marine Traffic tracking data also reveals how low the ship was sitting in the water, an indicator of whether or not vessels are loaded with cargo. The Neng Yuan appears to be lower in the water during its journey from North Korea to China until April 16, when it left Hong Kong.

“At least from this [satellite image], it appears to be a primarily coal port. Though it does handle non-coal products, it appears to be overwhelmingly coal,” LaFoy added.

The Neng Yuan’s journey I Image: Marine Traffic

The Neng Yuan’s journey follows of that of the Explorer, which left Rason port last month and headed for a coal-fired power station in Shanghai.

Both shipments come after Beijing suspended all imports of North Korean coal on February 18, in accordance with UN Resolution 2321, which limits member states from buying what is the DPRK’s most lucrative export.

The Neng Yuan’s destination in Hong Kong I Image: Marine Traffic

China doubled down on the claims that it banned North Korean coal on April 14.  Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, General Administration of Customs (GAC) spokesperson Huang Songping said that China had ceased imports at 2.7 million tonnes.

Whether or not the Neng Yuan’s movements breach sanctions depends on the coal’s origin and if the UN’s 1718 Committee is notified of the trade.  Certain coal exports from the DPRK’s Rason port are exempted from the UN’s restrictions, though the UN must be made aware of the exports.

“Coal that the procuring State confirms on the basis of credible information has originated outside the DPRK and was transported through the DPRK solely for export from the Port of Rajin (Rason), provided that the State notifies the Committee in advance,” paragraph 26 of Resolution 2321 reads.

But the 1718 Committee did not respond to requests for comment on whether China had alerted the UN body to the imports or if it was aware of the Neng Yuan’s movements.

North Korea’s vessel traffic has been under the spotlight recently following a Reuters report which claimed that a fleet of North Korean coal carrying ships had been sent back to the DPRK fully laden. But the report did not name the vessels or indicate how the ship cargos were known.

Featured image: Google Earth