Tensions rise over alleged North Korea sanctions-busting; South Korea seizes two vessels

Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months, breaching United Nations by transferring cargoes at sea, reported Reuters, citing unnamed senior Western European security sources.


The claims were based on naval intelligence and satellite imagery of the vessels operating out of Russian Far Eastern ports. Russia is the world’s second biggest oil exporter and has a veto on the UN Security Council. Reuters said that ship satellite positioning data showed unusual movements by some of the Russian vessels named by the security sources, including the switching off of transponders.


The sea-based transfers were said to have taken place in October and November and represented an escalation on the reports in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to North Korea.


One of the sources emphasised said that there was no evidence of Russian state involvement in the latest transfers.


Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Russian Customs Service both declined to comment, while the owner of one of the ships that was accused of sanctions-busting through oil exports, denied the allegation.


Russian-flagged tanker Vityaz (IMO 8125703) was alleged to have transferred fuel to North Korean vessels. She left the port of Slavyanka near Vladivostok in Russia on the 15th October with 1,600 tonnes of oil, according to Russian port control documents. Documents submitted by the vessel’s agent to the Russian State Port Control authority showed its destination as a fishing fleet in the Japan Sea. Shipping data showed the vessel switched off its transponder for a few days as it sailed into open waters.


European security sources claim that Vityaz transferred oil at sea in October to 1981-built, North Korea-flagged, 962 gt tanker Sam Ma 2 (IMO 8106496), owned and managed by Korea Samma Shipping Company of Pyongyang, North Korea. Ship tracking data showed that the Sam Ma 2 turned off its transponder from the start of August.


The owner of Vityaz denied any contact with North Korean vessels, stating it was unaware that the vessel was fuelling fishing boats. Yaroslav Guk, deputy director of the tanker’s owner, Vladivostok-based Alisa Ltd, told Reuters that the vessel had not had any contact with North Korean vessels. “Absolutely no, this is very dangerous. It would be complete madness.” The vessel’s transport agent East Coast Ltd declined to comment.


Two other Russian flagged tankers made similar journeys between the middle of October and November, leaving from the ports of Slavyanka and Nakhodka into open seas where they switched off their transponders.


Meanwhile, South Korea revealed that it seized a Hong Kong-registered ship last month, and a Panama-registered vessel more recently, both suspected of supplying oil to North Korea.


Hong Kong-registered Lighthouse Winmore (IMO 9635987) was alleged to have transferred 600 tonnes of refined oil to a North Korean ship.


Panama-flagged tanker Koti (IMO 9417115) was being held at a port near the western city of Pyeongtaek. Koti has a mostly Chinese and Burmese crew.


China denied claims by President Donald Trump it had allowed oil shipments to North Korea.


Lighthouse Winmore entered Yeosu port in South Korea on the 11th October to load up with refined oil, leaving four days later, ostensibly for Taiwan, Yonhap news agency reported.


However, the agency claimed, citing unnamed South Korean officials, that it transferred the oil in the East China Sea to 1975-built, 1,676 gt North Korean tanker Sam Jong 2 (IMO 7408873) and three other vessels in international waters on the 19th October, before heading for Taiwan.


The New York Times said the transfer was captured in US satellite photos, released by the US Treasury in November, although the Lighthouse Winmore was not named by the Treasury. Lighthouse Winmore was seized when it returned to Yeosu in November and remains in South Korea.


There is no evidence that China was involved in this case of alleged sanctions-busting. Lighthouse Winmore is Hong Kong-flagged, but was leased by a Taiwanese company, Billions Bunker Group.


Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that “China has never allowed Chinese enterprises nor individuals to violate UN Security Council resolutions imposed on (North Korea)”.


Lighthouse Winmore was one of the ten vessels which the US demanded be blacklisted under UN sanctions rules. Countries would be required to ban them from entering their ports (IMN, 21st December 2017).


1981-built, Russia-flagged, 1,553 gt Vityaz is owned and managed by Alisa Company of Vladivostok, Russia.


2014-built, Hong Kong-flagged 11,253 gt Lighthouse Winmore is owned by Win More Shipping Ltd care of Lighthouse Ship Management of Guangdong, China. According to Equasis it is entered with West of England Club, although it does not appear in the database on the West of England site.


2008-built, Panama-flagged, 5,182 gt Koti is owned by Koti Corporation care of manager Harmonised Resources Shipping Management Company Ltd of Hong Kong. ISM manager is Dalian Grand Ocean Shipping Company of Liaoning, China.


It is entered with West of England on behalf of MT Koti Corporation (incepted 1st December 2017). Equasis also lists Koti as entered with Shipowners’ P&I Club, incepted 27th November 2016, so possibly a change of insurer at end of November 2017.


In a more recent development, The US Treasury has published surveillance photographs reportedly taken on the 19th October of the North Korean vessel Rye Song Gang 1 lashed to a large Chinese vessel in deep waters, apparently showing hoses transferring oil.


Under the current tough sanctions regime Pyongyang is only allowed 500,000 barrels of oil imports a year. North Korea last week denounced ever tightening economic sanctions as “an act of war.”