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‘Leakage’ of Coal From North to South Korea Worries Experts

North Korean coal was unloaded onto the coal loading dock at the Port of Pohang, South Korea.
North Korean coal was unloaded onto the coal loading dock at the Port of Pohang, South Korea.

Following Seoul's announcement that South Korean companies have illegally imported North Korean coal, U.S. experts are worried about North Korean trade that contravenes international sanctions.

The Korea Customs Service (KCS) announced earlier this month that three South Korean companies illegally imported North Korean coal that was transshipped at Russian ports, in violation of United Nations resolutions.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on August 5, 2017, banning North Korea from exporting coal, iron, lead and other materials. Another resolution later that year, on December 22, called for U.N. members to seize and inspect vessels suspected of transporting prohibited items.

According to the KCS, in seven shipments between April and October of last year, three South Korean companies imported a total of 35,038 tons of North Korean coal and pig iron with a combined worth of $5.81 million.

North Korean coal on ships registered under a third country set sail either from its ports of Songlim, Wonsan, Chongjin and Daean, and the cargoes were transshipped via the Russian ports of Kholmsk, Vladivostock and Nakhodka before arriving at the South Korean ports of Dangjin, Pohang, Masan, Incheon and Donghae.

Action by Seoul

The South Korean government is now seeking the prosecution of the three companies for the illicit import of the materials and forging customs documents to state the coal and pig iron were of Russian origin. It also banned four ships – the Sky Angel, Rich Glory, Shining Rich and Jin Long – that transported the coal to South Korea from entering its ports.

Sanctions experts said South Korea’s illegal import of banned North Korean coal is a major violation of U.N. sanctions and that the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea may want to try to further investigate the ships that transported the coal to South Korea.

“It’s major in the sense that North Korea is very skilled at getting around sanctions,” said Robert Huish, a sanctions expert at Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “The issue with this is that when sanctions are put in place, they are never simple because the target, which is North Korea, will always have the chance to circumvent them.”

George Lopez, former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts for monitoring and implementing U.N. sanction on North Korea, said although he does not think the U.S. or U.N. will open a new investigation into the case, the panel of experts “may want to follow their own linkages to other sanctions violations, especially regarding particular ships and their owners and insurers.”

Lopez continued, “Their own connecting of the dots might lead to a critique of the [South Korea] customs service or an encouragement to other nations to follow this case as a model.”

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thinks the U.S. or U.N. should probe the case further if there is an indication that the South Korean government knowingly committed the illegal acts.

North Korean coal was unloaded onto the coal loading dock at the Port of Pohang, South Korea.
North Korean coal was unloaded onto the coal loading dock at the Port of Pohang, South Korea.

“If the evidence shows South Korea did it willfully or that it stood by after having enough knowledge to know that the coal was North Korean, they should be sanctioned [by the U.S.],” Stanton said. “I think there are things that the U.S. law enforcement and the U.N. panel of experts can investigate and should investigate. And the fact that the South Korean government denies it, is not persuasive to me.”

Some experts are concerned that South Korea’s illicit import could have a significant impact on the U.S. policy to apply maximum pressure on North Korea.

“Sanctions leakage does lessen the pressure on Pyongyang,” said Troy Stangarone, senior director at Korea Economic Institute specializing in South Korean trade and North Korea, adding, “North Korea has a long history of working to evade sanctions, and it is unsurprising that some of its efforts are coming to light.”

Length of investigation

The South Korean government faced a criticism that the investigations into this case, which took over 10 months, were overly drawn out, reflecting its reluctance to enforce sanctions.

In an interview with VOA's Korean Service last week in Seoul, Cho Hyun, the vice foreign minister of South Korea, said the pace of the investigation reflected nothing other than a desire for accuracy.

“It took time to accurately probe the case, and following the principle of being presumed innocent until guilty, [we] could not inform [the public of the investigation] in the interim period,” he said.

Kim Yung-moon, the commissioner of Korean customs, also told VOA's Korean Service that it took time to prove the coal was actually from North Korea.

North Korean coal was unloaded onto the coal loading dock at the Port of Pohang, South Korea.
North Korean coal was unloaded onto the coal loading dock at the Port of Pohang, South Korea.

“Because the North Korean coal entered [South Korea] after being transshipped from Russia, taking three months at times, we needed to prove that the coals were, in fact, from North Korea,” he said.

The Trump administration remains cautious about making accusations against the South Korean government for failing to enforce sanctions, stressing the importance of fully implementing U.N. sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury Department said in an email sent to VOA last week, the “Treasury strictly enforces OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) sanctions and U.N. Security Council Resolutions prohibiting illicit transactions with North Korea and works closely with our South Korean partners to continue to implement existing sanctions.” It further stated that the department does not speculate publicly on possible violations.

In July, the State Department issued a “North Korea Sanctions and Enforcement Actions Advisory” warning that businesses “should be aware of deceptive practices employed by North Korea,” emphasizing that the OFAC has “authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to … have sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased, directly or indirectly, to or from North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of the government of North Korea.” The advisory was distributed in five foreign languages, including Korean.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two Russian individuals, three companies, and six Russian-flagged ships for doing business with North Korea.

Christy Lee of the VOA Korean Service contributed to this report.