Foreign maritime patrols target illicit North Korea ship transfers

A North Korean vessel previously detained for illicit activity. Credit: Getty Images
A North Korean vessel previously detained for illicit activity. Credit: Getty Images

A loose coalition of Western and Asian countries is helping the United States detect and monitor North Korean tankers that are alledgedly carrying out ship-to-ship (STS) transfers in breach of United Nations resolutions against Pyongyang’s nuclear activities.

Japanese military surveillance aircraft have discovered at least three small North Korean tankers carrying out night-time STS operations several hundred kilometres off the coast of China in the East China Sea so far this year.

Australia and Canada have mounted airborne maritime patrols from a US base in Japan to detect illicit North Korean shipping activity. The Australian Air Force sent one of its latest Boeing P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance jets to support the detection and monitoring effort.

Britain’s Royal Navy have rotated three warships through the area, including HMS Sutherland and HMS Albion, while New Zealand and France are also involved in military surveillance activities.

The extent of foreign involvement in policing North Korean shipping activities was highlighted by the US State Department which “welcomed” and “applauded” such action in a statement on 22 September.

“The United States applauds the recent announcements from Japan, Australia and New Zealand regarding monitoring and surveillance activities to detect UN-prohibited illicit North Korean maritime activities, with a particular focus on detecting and disrupting STS transfers of refined petroleum to North Korean tankers in the East China Sea,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“As part of this effort, we are sharing information and co-ordinating efforts to ensure that UN Security Council Resolutions are implemented fully and effectively. In support of this initiative, the United States has deployed aircraft and surface vessels to detect and disrupt these activities,” she said.

“North Korea continues to regularly employ deceptive tactics to evade UN sanctions. Accordingly, UN Member States are required to prohibit persons or entities subject to their jurisdiction from engaging in STS transfers of refined petroleum. In addition, the United States will not hesitate to impose sanctions on any individual, entity, or vessel supporting North Korea’s illicit activities, regardless of nationality,” Nauert added.

In August, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions against several Russian and Chinese shipping and logistics companies along with six ships for allegedly breaching sanctions.

The Treasury Department has also identified 23 North Korean-flagged tankers it said are capable of STS cargo transfers. The vessels are listed in a 10-page advisory document, which also highlights a section of the East China Sea, roughly equidistant between Shanghai in China and Nagasaki in Japan, known for enhanced North Korea STS transfers.

Among the ships identified by the Treasury Department are three tankers discovered by Japanese Lockheed P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft earlier this year.

These are the 3,565 dwt Chon Ma San oil products tanker controlled by Korea Achim Shipping, which was found carrying out a STS transfer with the oil products tanker Xin Yua 18 about 250 km east of Shanghai in February. The Xin Yua 18 is listed as owned by Hong Kong’s Ha Fa Trade International.

In May, the 1,250 dwt bunker tanker Ji Song 6 was connected by hose to a smaller, unidentified ship believed to be flying the Chinese flag.

A third North Korean tanker, the 3,150 dwt Nam San 8, was discovered by Japanese military tied up next to another vessel, also thought to be flying the Chinese flag, about 400 km east of Shanghai.