World News

South Korea Seizes Ship Suspected of Sending Oil to North Korea

Posted December 29, 2017 10:07 p.m. EST
Updated December 29, 2017 10:12 p.m. EST

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has seized a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker accused of transferring 600 tons of refined oil to a North Korean ship in October in violation of United Nations sanctions, South Korean officials said Friday.

Officials revealed that they had impounded the 11,253-ton tanker, the Lighthouse Winmore, and questioned its crew. The revelation came a day after President Donald Trump accused China of letting fuel oil flow into North Korea through illicit ship-to-ship transfers on international waters.

There was no immediate evidence of official Chinese involvement in the Lighthouse Winmore’s dealings with the North Koreans.

The registered owner of the ship is a Hong Kong company called Win More Shipping. The only director of that company is Gong Ruiqiang, who lives in Guangzhou, China, according to Hong Kong corporate filings. The ship was being leased by a Taiwanese company, South Korean Foreign Ministry officials told reporters Friday.

The Lighthouse Winmore docked at the South Korean port of Yeosu on Oct. 11 to load 14,039 tons of refined petroleum from Japan, they said. Four days later, it departed Yeosu, saying it was headed for Taiwan. Instead, it transferred the refined oil to four other ships in international waters, including 600 tons transferred to the North Korean ship Sam Jong 2 on Oct. 19, officials said.

A similar ship-to-ship transfer involving another North Korean ship, Rye Song Gang 1, was captured in satellite photos released by the U.S. Treasury Department on Nov. 21, although the department did not release the name of the other ship involved in the high-seas transaction.

South Korean authorities boarded the Lighthouse Winmore and questioned its crew members when they returned to Yeosu on Nov. 24. The ship was formally impounded by South Korea after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution Dec. 22 requiring member countries to inspect and impound any vessel in their ports that was believed to have been used for prohibited activities with North Korea.

Under those sanctions, countries cannot export more than a half million barrels of refined petroleum products, an 89 percent cut from previous annual shipments, and 4 million barrels of crude oil in total per year to North Korea. They are required to report their oil shipments to the North so that the Security Council can keep a real-time update of the aggregate amount and determine whether the caps have been reached.

The Security Council has also banned ship-to-ship transfers of oil on the high seas .

The Lighthouse Winmore remains in South Korean custody, officials said Friday. Its 25 crewmen — 23 Chinese citizens and two men from Myanmar — will be allowed to leave after the investigation is over.

Word of the seizure emerged after Trump used a post on Twitter and an interview with The New York Times to accuse China of letting oil flow into North Korea in defiance of U.N. sanctions, warning that there will be no “friendly solution” until the flow stops. Trump’s accusation came amid deepening suspicions in Washington and among its allies that Chinese oil tankers were secretly transferring petroleum to North Korean ships on the high seas. China insists that there was no sanctions violation.

“Caught RED HANDED — very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post Thursday. “There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!”

The U.N. Security Council has ramped up its efforts to squeeze oil supplies for North Korea after the country conducted its sixth nuclear test Sept. 3 and followed it with the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile Nov. 29.

But the impact of sanctions depends largely on how faithfully they are enforced by China, which handles 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade, including nearly all of its oil imports, analysts say. If the reports of ship-to-ship oil transfers are true, it could mean that much more oil is flowing secretly into North Korea than allowed under U.N. sanctions, with or without Chinese authorities’ knowledge.

Trump has repeatedly urged President Xi Jinping to use China’s economic leverage to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. But analysts warn that Beijing is unlikely to push North Korea to the brink of collapse, still cherishing its neighbor as a buffer against the influence of the United States and its closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea.

In the interview with The Times, published Thursday night, Trump explicitly said for the first time that he had “been soft” on China on trade matters in the hopes that its leaders would press North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. He hinted that his patience might soon end, signaling his frustration with the reported oil shipments.

“Oil is going into North Korea. That wasn’t my deal!” he exclaimed, raising the possibility of aggressive trade actions against China. “If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do.”

Despite saying that Xi “treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China” when he visited in November, Trump said Thursday that “they have to help us much more.”

“We have a nuclear menace out there, which is no good for China,” he said.

When it blacklisted several Chinese trading companies and North Korean shipping companies and their vessels in November, the U.S. Treasury Department said that North Korea was “known to employ deceptive shipping practices, including ship-to-ship transfers.”

Trump’s criticism of China came after the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, quoting anonymous sources, reported that U.S. spy satellites had spotted 30 ship-to-ship transfers of oil and other products since October in international waters between North Korea and China.

The report said the “smuggling” took place between North Korean vessels and ships believed to be from China.

In its latest sanctions, adopted Dec. 22, the Security Council was concerned that North Korea was “illicitly exporting coal and other prohibited items through deceptive maritime practices and obtaining petroleum illegally through ship-to-ship transfers.”

Washington has asked the Security Council to blacklist 10 ships — including the Lighthouse Winmore,the Sam Jong 2 and the Rye Song Gang 1 — for circumventing sanctions by conducting ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products to North Korean vessels or transporting North Korean coal, Reuters reported, citing U.N. documents.

On Thursday, the Security Council did add four ships — Billions No. 18, Ul Ji Bong 6, Rung Ra 2, and Rye Song Gang 1 — to a list of vessels banned from port entry in U.N. member countries for transporting prohibited goods to North Korea. All operate under a North Korean flag, except for Billions No. 18, which is registered to Palau.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry refused to confirm the Chosun Ilbo report, saying that the matter was being discussed at the Security Council’s sanctions committee.

But Chinese officials disputed the news media reports.

Ren Guoqiang, a spokesman for the Chinese Defense Ministry, was more categorical in denial: “The situation you have mentioned absolutely does not exist,” he told reporters Thursday.