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North Korea acquired two new oil tankers last year, report says

North Korea acquired two oil tankers last year in violation of U.N. Security Council prohibitions, a new report said. File photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
North Korea acquired two oil tankers last year in violation of U.N. Security Council prohibitions, a new report said. File photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, June 2 (UPI) -- Pyongyang evaded global sanctions and obtained two new oil tankers for its smuggling operations in 2020, according to an analysis by Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The new tankers demonstrate "North Korea's ability to draw upon several avenues to continue expanding its oil smuggling capacity despite U.N. prohibitions specifically targeting the practice," the report, published Tuesday on CSIS' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website, said.

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In 2017, the U.N. Security Council prohibited the sale or transfer of any new or used vessels to North Korea without its prior approval.

North Korea also acquired a new vessel for smuggling in 2019, the report said, highlighting Pyongyang's ongoing ability to work around the U.N. restrictions.

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A March report by the U.N. Panel of Experts found that at least 121 unreported shipments of refined petroleum products were delivered to North Korea during the first nine months of 2020.

North Korea uses a variety of methods to receive illicit supplies, including ship-to-ship transfers and disguising the identities of its vessels through swapped profiles or manipulation of automatic identification system transmissions, the U.N. Panel said.

Two of the three new tankers were previously owned by South Korean companies, according to the CSIS report. The ships, called the Sin Phyong 5 and Kwang Chon 2, made their way from South Korean brokers to individuals or companies in China, the report said.

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The third, the Wol Bong San, had previously been sailing under a Sierra Leone flag and was transferred via Hong Kong-based Baili Shipping and Trading. The company has been tied to North Korea's illicit weapons trade as well as its coal and oil smuggling networks.

"Pyongyang sourced new vessels from seemingly legitimate routes aided by potentially less than diligent local brokers, or from well-established sanctions evaders who remain clear of designations and their associated red flags," the report said.

Agents in China were the "common denominator" in all three transactions, it noted.

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China remains North Korea's closest economic partner and insists that it abides by international sanctions, although it has joined Russia in calling for the punishing restrictions to be eased.

In December, U.S. State Department official Alex Wong said China was trying to "undo the U.N. sanctions regime" against North Korea, accusing Beijing of turning a blind eye to ships smuggling fuel and other prohibited items in its waters and allowing its companies and middlemen to trade in banned goods.

"In no other country do we see this breadth and depth of continuing illicit commercial activity with North Korea, the scale of which puts China in flagrant violation of its [United Nations] obligations," Wong said.

The CSIS report said that China's involvement in the prohibited oil tanker deals "does not bode well for any improved enforcement of this particular U.N. restriction."

"If North Korea was able to acquire new oil vessels without much trouble in 2019, and from its southern neighbor in 2020, it will likely find it even easier in 2021," the report said.

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