World News

South Korea Seizes Ship Suspected of Sending Oil to North Korea

Posted December 29, 2017 12:08 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 Hong Kong 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.

But there was no immediate evidence of Chinese involvement in the Lighthouse Winmore’s dealings with the North Koreans. The ship was being leased by the Taiwanese company Billions Bunker Group Corp., 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 on 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.

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

The Security Council on Thursday denied international port access to the Sam Jong 2 and three other North Korean ships suspected of carrying or having transported banned goods, Agence France-Presse reported, citing U.N. diplomats. Word of the seizure emerged after Trump used a tweet and an interview 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 this 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 despite U.N. sanctions that prohibit such trade. 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 North Korea’s oil supplies after the country conducted its sixth nuclear test Sept. 3 and followed it with the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile Nov. 29.

The U.N. sanctions resolutions call for capping annual exports of refined petroleum to North Korea at a half-million barrels, an 89 percent cut from previous annual shipments. They also call for freezing crude oil shipments at 4 million barrels a year, committing the Security Council to further reductions if North Korea conducts another nuclear or ICBM test.

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 an interview with The New York Times published Thursday night, Trump explicitly said for the first time that he has “been soft” on China on trade in the hopes that its leaders will pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. He hinted that his patience may 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,” a practice banned under a U.N. sanctions resolution adopted Sept. 11.

Trump’s criticism of China came after the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, quoting anonymous sources, reported that U.S. spy satellites have 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 expressed concern 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 called on 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. China and Russia subsequently asked for more time to consider the proposal, it said.

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

But Chinese officials disputed the news media reports.

“I would like to know whether the relevant media could specify which ship or ships were involved in the situation?” Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Wednesday. “What made them conclude that these ships violated the Security Council resolutions? Any solid evidence?”

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.

The ownership of big tankers and industrial ships can be difficult to discern. The owners often maintain foreign registration, something known in the industry as a flag of convenience.

There were signs that the Lighthouse Winmore may have a connection to China. The registered owner of the ship is a Hong Kong company called Win More Shipping. The only director of Win More Shipping is Gong Ruiqiang, who lives in Guangzhou, according to Hong Kong corporate filings. He is also listed as a shareholder of several shipping companies in China.

No one answered the door at Win More Shipping’s office on the 12th floor of a building in central Hong Kong. At least three other companies were listed at the same address, including a company called Water Confidence Technologies.