South Korea revealed on Friday that it seized a Hong Kong-flagged vessel last month after the ship secretly transferred 600 tonnes of refined petroleum to a North Korean vessel in breach of UN sanctions.
Fresh UN curbs require nations to inspect and impound any ship suspected of illegal transfers to North. South Korean customs authorities took and searched the vessel, Lighthouse Winmore, when it re-entered Yeosu Port on November 24 after transferring petroleum to the North Korean vessel on October 19.
The Hong Kong-flagged ship chartered by Taiwanese company Billions Bunker Group had visited Yeosu Port on October 11 to load up on Japanese refined petroleum and head for ‘Taiwan’ four days later. But instead of going to Taiwan, the vessel transferred oil to a North Korean ship, Sam Jong 2, and three other non-North Korean vessels in international waters in the East China Sea.
The New York Times said the transfer was captured in US satellite photos. While the Treasury named the North Korean ship which received oil, it did not then identify the Hong Kong-flagged vessel.
A South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that such illegal ship-to-ship transfers had been filmed by US spy satellites at least 30 times after October 19.
South Korean officials say this is one way North Korea uses an illegal network to circumvent UN sanctions.
The oil transaction was said to have been ordered by the Taiwanese group through the vessel’s captain. But motive of the transaction with North Korea is not known.
Incidentally, Lighthouse Winmore was one of the 10 ships the US recently requested the UN Security Council sanctions committee to blacklist for engaging in proscribed trade with North Korea. The council is set to decide on it.
Twenty-three Chinese nationals and two Burmese nationals on board the ship would be permitted to leave only after the investigation is concluded. Seoul will keep the seized vessel for about six months during which time Hong Kong is expected to file a request for its release with the sanctions committee on North Korea.
China denies role
China’s foreign ministry said it was not aware of the incident in South Korea and denied that any of its vessels had been involved in oil transfer to North Korea.
Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing has launched an investigation on the oil transfer that allegedly took place on October 19.
Taiwan, on its part, said Billions Bunker Group was not incorporated in Taiwan adding that it will continue to comply with all UN sanctions against North Korea.
Seoul’s revelations come after China denied charges by President Donald Trump that it was still allowing oil shipments to the North.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “Caught RED HANDED – very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea.”