China has been aiding North Korea to evade international sanctions, including by allowing the latter to export resources within its waters, according to a recent report.
The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based defense and security think tank, published a report on March 5 analyzing satellite photos, commercial vessel information, and ships’ automatic identification system (AIS), which emits a location signal that can be picked up by satellites and radio equipment to prevent collisions at sea.
“A large fleet of North Korean cargo ships continues to deliver coal to China in contravention of U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, in what appears to be a large-scale, coordinated effort to evade sanctions imposed on the country over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” the report concludes.
International sanctions have been placed on North Korea since 2016, following the latter’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. In August 2017, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2371, banning the regime from exporting products such as coal, iron, iron ore, and seafood. In December of the same year, the UNSC slapped North Korea with Resolution 2397, targeting the country’s oil imports, setting a limit of 500,000 barrels per year.
According to the report, North Korean vessels would load coal and other resources—likely sanctioned commodities—before sailing to Chinese waters around the Zhoushan Islands, an archipelago that is part of coastal China’s Zhejiang Province. Those shipments were likely meant for Chinese shipping terminals, the report said.
Zhoushan is one of China’s naval bases. It houses the East Sea Fleet, with destroyers, frigates, and corvettes stationed there. The islands are also home to facilities operated by the China Coast Guard, the China Maritime Safety Administration, and the Zhoushan Port Authority, according to the report.
Despite such a heavy military presence, the think tank found that based on satellite images, North Korean ships weren’t stopped or detained—even when the ships were transmitting fraudulent AIS signals to disguise themselves.
Some of the North Korean vessels were blacklisted by the UNSC.
U.N. Resolution 2397 states that U.N. member states shall “seize, inspect, and freeze (compound) any vessels” in their ports and territorial waters, if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the vessel is engaged in illicit activity prohibited under the resolution.
But the Chinese regime appeared to let North Korean vessels go unhindered.
On Feb. 1 this year, for example, a Chinese maritime patrol boat “sailed through a cluster of North Korean vessels at 03:40 UTC.”
China’s failure to take action against North Korean vessels “raises very serious concerns either about China’s ability to effectively patrol the waters around one of its most important naval bases, or that it has no appetite to enforce UNSC resolutions it has itself supported in response to North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” the report stated.
The report also found evidence supporting a 2019 U.N. report, which claimed that North Korean ships were conducting illicit ship-to-ship transfer operations at sea, a practice prohibited by the U.N. resolutions.
The U.N. report said that North Korea may have breached its 500,000 barrel annual quota within the first four months of 2019, and exported a total of 930,000 metric tons of coal during that same period, in violation of sanctions.
Additionally, the U.N. report found that North Korean vessels conducted ship-to-ship transfers in the waters off the coast of northern Vietnam and off the Chinese city of Ningbo, a major port city in Zhejiang Province.
On May 10, 2019, RUSI spotted a North Korean-flagged ship flanked by two unidentified lighters or barges with a floating transloading platform, near the Zhoushan Islands.
“In some of these instances, [Chinese] barges could be observed sailing towards North Korean vessels before dropping AIS signals, only to appear back on tracking systems days later before sailing back to bulk-handling facilities along the Yangtze River,” RUSI stated.
In response to the U.N. report, China said that the claims were “ambiguous” and not enough to “constitute a full evidence chain or basis for further investigation.”
RUSI noted China’s response, saying, “If that evidence, in addition to that presented here, is insufficient to induce China to act, then it is difficult to imagine what body of facts would prompt the country to meet its UNSC obligations.”
The RUSI report came just one day after Washington-based profit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) issued a report claiming that North Korea violated a 2017 U.N. resolution preventing it from “supply, selling, or transferring sand,” according to Reuters.
“Between March and August 2019, C4ADS observed a large fleet of vessels originating from Chinese waters traveling to North Korea to dredge and transport sand from [North Korea’s] Haeju Bay,” C4ADS said.
C4ADS drew its conclusion based on analyzing AIS data, but it was still gauging how much sand might have been exported from North Korea.