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North Korea sanctions

Russian tankers fuelled North Korea via transfers at sea, Western security sources claim

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 December, 2017, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 December, 2017, 4:59pm

Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in October and November by transferring cargoes at sea, two senior Western European security sources claim.

The sales of oil or oil products from Russia breach United Nations sanctions, the security sources said.

“Russian vessels have made ship-to-ship transfers of petrochemicals to North Korean vessels on several occasions this year in breach of sanctions,” said the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The second source said Moscow may not have been involved in the transfers.

“There is no evidence that this is backed by the Russian state but these Russian vessels are giving a lifeline to the North Koreans,” the source said.

The sources cited naval intelligence and satellite imagery of the vessels operating from Russia’s Far East ports on the Pacific but would not reveal more details to Reuters, saying it was classified.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Russian Customs Service both declined to comment when asked on Wednesday whether Russian ships supplied fuel to North Korean vessels. The owner of one ship accused of smuggling oil to North Korea denied the claim.

The US State Department, in a statement, called on Russia and other UN members to “strictly implement” sanctions on North Korea and to work “more closely together to shut down UN-prohibited activities, including ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum and the transport of coal from North Korea”.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the vessels had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels, whether Moscow knew about the alleged sales or how many Russian ships were involved in the transfers. It was also unclear how much fuel may have been transferred.

Ship satellite positioning data consulted by Reuters shows unusual movements by some of the Russian vessels named by the sources, including switching off transponders which give a precise location.

The sources said the Russian-flagged tanker Vityaz was one vessel that had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels.

The Vityaz left the port of Slavyanka near Vladivostok in Russia on October 15 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 was 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.

The sources claim the Vityaz conducted a ship-to-ship transfer with the North Korean Flagged Sam Ma 2 tanker in open seas during October.

Ship tracking data showed that the Sam Ma 2 had turned off its transponder from the start of August.

The owner of the Russian vessel denied any contact with North Korean vessels but also said it was unaware that the vessel was fuelling fishing boats.

Yaroslav Guk, deputy director of the tanker’s owner, Vladivostok-based Alisa, said the vessel had no contacts with North Korean vessels.

“Absolutely no, this is very dangerous,” Guk said. “It would be complete madness.”

An official at East Coast, the vessel’s transport agent, declined to comment.

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

The claims came after China denied on Friday it had illicitly shipped oil products to North Korea in response to accusations made by US President Donald Trump.

Beijing’s denial came a day after it blocked a US effort at the UN to blacklist six ships Washington claims engaged in illicit trade with North Korea, a UN Security Council diplomat said.

In September, Reuters reported that at least eight North Korean ships that left Russia loaded with fuel this year headed for their homeland despite declaring other destinations, a ploy that US officials say is often used to undermine sanctions.