China and Russia on July 19 delayed a US bid to the 15-member United Nations Security Council to halt refined petroleum exports to North Korea, asking for more detail on a US accusation that Pyongyang breached sanctions, Reuters reported.

Transporting refined petroleum products to North Korea via ship-to-ship transfers is reportedly continuing despite UN sanctions. Last week, the US told the UN that as of May 30, there had been 89 illicit ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products this year by Pyongyang, according to the news agency.

The UNSC toughened sanctions last year after Pyongyang said it had conducted missile tests that put the US mainland in range of its nuclear weapons. Under the sanctions, North Korea reportedly can annually import up to 4 million barrels of crude and 500,000 barrels of products.

At a meeting in Singapore in June, US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a broad statement, calling for a firm and unwavering commitment to complete the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola told New Europe that NATO has not been engaged on any level regarding North Korea issue and hasn’t been asked to take part by either the US or UN.

Russian vessels have engaged in smuggling fuel to North Korean vessels in violation of UN sanctions, according to a Reuters report citing European security sources on December 29, 2017.

The report, titled, “Russian tankers fuelled North Korea via transfers at sea” noted that the vessels included the Vityaz. The transfers in October and November 2017 indicate that smuggling from Russia to North Korea has evolved to loading cargoes at sea since Reuters reported in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to their homeland.

Additionally, petroleum products supplied to North Korea originate from around the world. But, as Reuters reported, Russian port authorities have started to crack down on ships violating the sanctions.

These ships now face being banned from legitimate activity in the future. The continued practice could result in long-term consequences that reach beyond trade with North Korea.

During transfers, there have been incidents where North Koreans falsified documents and gauges to reflect lower than delivered product amounts. The North Koreans have taken advantage of the fact that these ships are violating sanctions and therefore have no legal recourse to claim financial losses.

Pyongyang relies on refined petroleum to fuel its struggling economy.

Tracing ships

As data sharing becomes increasingly available in the shipping community matching suppliers with transporters, tracing ships that are violating sanctions becomes doable.

John A. Gauci-Maistre, Chairman and CEO at Economicard Group, who has more than 40 years of experience in shipping, explained that all vessels now have an International Maritime Organization (IMO) number. The IMO number is your identification,” he told New Europe. “If they have an IMO number they are fully traceable but if they come perhaps from a substandard flag state or a rogue state or a rogue company managing a proper flag that there are ways and means because if the wrong IMO number is given on the ship then you know the ship is breaking the sanctions but you don’t know which ship it is. If you have false documentation, it’s a different story,” Gauci-Maistre explained.

“There is the AIS and that follows the ship everywhere. You do it from your mobile. You can track any ship you want and you will know where it is and where it is going and where it’s coming from, including the speed it’s doing the whole lot. So if any country wants to follow, it’s very easy and very doable, including advising port states and flag states that have broken sanctions,” Gauci-Maistre explained.

Transporting refined petroleum products to North Korea via ship-to-ship transfers is a high-risk activity that violates the United Nations’ sanctions. Authorities could seize vessels and their personnel or ban vessels for future port calls for little cause.

“If the ship is caught, it can be traced so we will know who it is. If the ship is not caught I guess it’s like any other common criminal. If someone breaks into your house and this person is not caught you can’t do anything about it. You first have to catch the thief before he can be prosecuted. Before a ship can be named or named and shamed, if needed be, but before anything can be done to arrest the vessel or the owning company, first the ship has to be caught,” Gauci-Maistre explained.

“If one ship is under suspicion and the other one isn’t, the other ship would get caught automatically because you track the one ship you have suspicion on, if it encounters another ship halfway in the middle of the sea, you then know straight away the name of the other ship, and you start tracing the other ship, then you follow where it goes to, you trace the other ship where it came from and where the other ship is going to so everything traceable nowadays. It all depends on what information they have. But we know that fuel smuggling and sanctions breaking have been there and I think will stay there no matter what the modern equipment to catch the sanctions breakers,” said Gauci-Maistre.