North Korea sanctions
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A North Korean stands guard near barrels in the border city of Sinuiju. According to Chinese customs data, the country did not export any oil products to North Korea in November. Photo: AP

Beijing denies reports that Chinese ships are secretly selling oil to North Korea

Defence ministry says ‘the situation absolutely does not exist’

China on Thursday denied that it is violating UN sanctions by selling oil to North Korean vessels after reports that Chinese ships suspected of carrying out the illegal trade were seen in the Yellow Sea.

The latest UN sanctions – passed last week after Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile test in November – seek to cut nearly 90 per cent of refined petroleum exports to North Korea by capping them at 500,000 barrels a year.

But US reconnaissance satellites have reportedly spotted Chinese and North Korean ships illegally trading in oil in the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean peninsula.

The trade began after tough sanctions were imposed in September that drastically cut the regime’s imports of refined petroleum products, the Chosun newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing South Korean government sources who said there had been 30 such sightings by spy satellites since October.

According to Chinese customs data, the country did not export any oil products to North Korea in November.

Beijing on Thursday said there was no illicit trade, with defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang saying China and its military strictly enforced the UN resolutions on North Korea.

“The situation you have mentioned absolutely does not exist,” Ren said at a regular media briefing, without elaborating. It is unclear what role the Chinese military has in enforcing sanctions.

A day earlier, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying sought to play down the reports, saying only ships on the UN Security Council list were banned from trading, and China would deal with any case of the sanctions being violated according to the law.

Beijing has maintained that it strictly follows any sanctions against the pariah state, although it has been reluctant to agree to restrictions it considers threaten the lives of ordinary North Koreans. It has also denounced the possibility of a military option to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, instead calling for the issue to be resolved through dialogue.

But it has been under increasing pressure from the United States and its allies in the region to get tougher on Pyongyang. The US Treasury last month placed a number of North Korean and Chinese shipping and trading companies and 20 ships on a sanctions list.

Additional reporting by Reuters