SEOUL - Russia engaged in more extensive oil exports to North Korea than had been previously reported, by setting up an illicit trade network that is likely still being used today to evade United Nations sanctions, according a South Korean research organization.
A recent report issued by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul used Russian customs data to document how “one North Korean state enterprise purchased 622,878 tons of Russian oil worth $238 million,” between 2015 and 2017.”
While China is North Korea’s main oil supplier, the ASAN estimate for Russian oil exports to North Korea is significantly higher than the $25 million in sales for the same period that was reported by the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) in Seoul.
“Smuggling has always been an important element in the cross-border trade between North Korea and it’s important allies. What the Chinese government and the Russian government to a lesser extent have been doing is to turn a blind eye to these activities,” said Go Myong-Hyun, a North Korea analyst with the Asan Institute For Policy Studies in Seoul.
The Asan report comes amid allegations that Russia potentially violated international sanctions imposed on North Korea by granting thousands of new work permits to North Korean laborers. Moscow had denied any such actions.
The Trump administration also imposed targeted U.S sanctions on a Russian bank for allegedly doing business with a person blacklisted for involvement with North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
On Friday U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the allegations against Russia, “very troubling.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on “the Russians and all countries to abide by the U.N. Security Council resolutions and enforce sanctions on North Korea," while attending the ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore on Saturday.
United Nations sanctions imposed in September of 2017 prohibit member countries from “providing work authorizations” permits to North Korean workers.
In December of 2017 the U.N. Security Council further strengthened the sanctions to cut North Korean oil imports by a third, and to impose a total export ban on North Korea’s $3 billion coal and other mineral industries, its $800 million clothing manufacturing output, and its lucrative seafood industry.
The ASAN report is centered on the activities of the Independent Petroleum Company (IPC), a Russian firm that the U.S. Treasury Department targeted in June 2017 for violating restrictions on selling oil to North Korea. IPC has since changed its name.
IPC was found to have sold large quantities of oil to Russian affiliated companies, such as the Pro-Gain Group Corporation (PGGC) that was actually operating on behalf of North Korea’s state owned Foreign Trade Bank. The North Korean bank has been under U.S. sanctions since 2013.
“The entities involved tried to cover up the transactions by falsifying destination countries for the purchases,” said the ASAN report entitled The Rise of Phantom Traders.
The report notes that PGGC is owned by Taiwan citizen Tsang Yung Yuan. Tsang was sanctioned earlier this year by the U.S. for facilitating North Korean coal exports using a Russia-based North Korean broker. PGGC has headquarters listed both in Taipei and Samoa.
North Korea has also been accused of conducting illicit ship-to-ship transfers of oil, and to conceal these operations by disabling the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder of vessels in order to hide their location. There have also been reports of North Korea changing vessel names and identification numbers, even painting over or altering the numbers on the ships’ exteriors.
A large number of oil shipments were also delivered to the Russian-North Korean border village of Khasan, which is connected by rail to the North Korean port terminal at Rajin.
The Rajin-Khasan rail project was exempted from U.N. sanctions to allow Russia to use the North Korean seaport to export Russian coal.
Trade records show that oil deliveries arriving in Khasan were on their way to China, but the report suggests it is more likely North Korea was the final destination. Since 2015, the ASAN report says, only PGGC and Velmur, two companies with ties to North Korea, listed Khasan as the point of delivery for oil shipments.
According to the ASAN report, Moscow and Pyongyang are likely exploiting the Rajin-Khasan rail exemption to evade restrictions on North Korean oil imports.
In 2016, South Korea suspended its participation in the Rajin-Khasan rail project to comply with U.S. unilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea trade.
Recently some officials in Seoul have called for these sanctions affecting the Rajin-Khasan Project to be lifted, so that investment can proceed in connecting South Korean rail both to North Korea, and to the intentional railway system beyond that can reach Europe.
The sanctions are intended to cut North Korea off from foreign currency and materials needed for weapons production, and to impose economic pain on the leadership to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
Despite increased reports of sanctions evasions, Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst with the Sejong Institute in South Korea, says the recent report of an 88 percent decline in North Korean trade in the first quarter of this year indicates the economic situation there is in dire condition.
“If the sanctions from the U.N. Security Council continue, economic breakdown in North Korea will be inevitable,” said Cheong.
Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have made little significant progress toward ending the North’s nuclear program since June, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearization during his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
The U.S. insists that the North completely end it nuclear weapons program before any concessions are granted, while Pyongyang wants early sanctions relief.
On Sunday Pompeo said that North Korean Foreign Minster Ri Yong Ho reiterated a “very clear” commitment to denuclearize when the two met at the ASEAN conference in Singapore.
Lee Yoon-jee contributed to this report.