Japan accuses N Korea of dodging sanctions at sea ahead of Vietnam summit

16-Feb-2019 Intellasia | ABC | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Japan says it has caught North Korea repeatedly evading international sanctions at sea, warning the incidents may “just be the tip of the iceberg” of suspected illegal ship-to-ship transfers.

It comes just weeks before US President Donald Trump is due to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their second summit in Vietnam.

Trump has recently been singing the praises of Kim, but Washington’s closest partners in the region offered a starkly different view.

Japanese government officials told the ABC their assessment was unchanged: Pyongyang remains an “unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat”.

The UN has capped North Korean imports of refined petroleum at 500,000 barrels a year, in a bid to choke off the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

However, Japan said that had not stopped North Korean-flagged ships appearing to take delivery of fuel on the open ocean.

Last month, Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Forces spotted a North Korean tanker with hoses connected to a ship in the East China Sea.

They do not know where the ship was from, but the Japanese government strongly believes they conducted an illegal transfer.

North Korea’s secret maritime activities

A Japanese foreign ministry source told the ABC that North Korea was taking extra steps to avoid detection at sea, and recent illicit transfers may “just be the tip of the iceberg”.

“We see that there are transfers at night, or [they're] putting on the wrong ship names, or using smaller ships for these transfers,” the ministry source said.

“If a ship is below a certain tonnage, it is not obliged to have an automatic identification system.”

An international force of ships and aircraft based in Okinawa has been monitoring the suspected illegal transfers.

Australian surveillance aircraft have previously been involved in the campaign, along with aircraft and ships from New Zealand, the US, the UK and Canada.

However, Japan’s government said it would welcome more support as North Korea took more steps to elude surveillance.

In the first half of 2018, the US said there were at least 89 illicit shipments.

Since then there have been many more, but not all have been made public.

Professor Narushige Michishita, a former senior Japanese Defence Ministry researcher, said these transfers were undermining the effectiveness of sanctions.

“North Korea must be suffering from the sanctions because the large part of the trade activities between North Korea and China has been stalled,” he told the ABC.

“The source of North Korea’s foreign revenue has been squeezed up. I think Kim Jong-un is trying to find a way out of this.”

Last week, a confidential UN assessment reportedly revealed North Korea continued to defy resolutions through a massive increase in ship-to-ship transfers.

It is believed North Korea was able to obtain an unprecedented 57,600 barrels of petroleum in a single transfer.

Experts have little hope summit will reduce nuclear threat

With the next summit between Trump and Kim planned for just a few weeks’ time, the US may offer some relief from sanctions.

Senior US military officials are welcoming the second summit, but do not believe North Korea will give up all of its nuclear weapons.

They have voiced concern there has been little to no verifiable reduction in North Korea’s military capabilities.

A report from Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Cooperation found that Pyongyang has continued to produce bomb fuel while in denuclearisation talks.

The country may have produced enough to add up to seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.

Professor Michishita said his feelings were mixed heading into the summit.

“North Korea has not been conducting nuclear tests and missile flight tests. That probably has been undermining [its] ability to conduct missile strike operations That’s good news,” he said.

“But at the same time, North Korea continues to increase the nuclear fissile materials that it has.”



Category: Korea

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