A few days ago, it was revealed by U.S. intelligence that China was selling oil to North Korea via ship-to-ship transfers. Now Reuters is reporting that Western intelligence sources are claiming Russia is also selling oil to the Kim regime in violation of UN Security Council sanctions.
The transfers in October and November 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.
“The Russian vessels made transfers at sea to the North Koreans,” the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. The source said the transfers of oil or oil products took place on several occasions and were a breach of sanctions.
A second source, who independently confirmed the existence of the Russian ship-to-ship fuel trade with North Korea, said there was no evidence of Russian state involvement in the latest transfers.
“There is no evidence that this is backed by the Russian state but these Russian vessels are giving a lifeline to the North Koreans,” the second European security source said.
In comments carried by Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency on Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the country was observing sanctions against North Korea.
The two security sources cited naval intelligence and satellite imagery of the vessels operating out of Russian Far Eastern ports on the Pacific but declined to disclose further details to Reuters, saying it was classified.
The Russian Customs Service declined to comment when asked on Wednesday if Russian ships had supplied fuel to North Korean vessels. The owner of one ship accused of smuggling oil to North Korea denied any such activity.
Is it possible that two governments with tightly controlled economies would be unaware of smuggling operations worth many millions of dollars?
Possible, but not likely.
In fact, the manner in which the oil transfers are carried out — on the open sea outside the territorial waters of either China or Russia — gives both governments plausible deniability.
There is also this little gambit by the Kim regime to get oil by hook or by crook:
In September, Reuters reported that at least eight North Korean ships that left Russia loaded with fuel this year headed for their homeland despite declaring other destinations, a ploy that U.S. officials say is often used to undermine sanctions.
A Russian shipping source with knowledge of Far Eastern marine practices said North Korean vessels had stopped loading fuel in Russia’s Far Eastern ports but that fuel is delivered at sea by tankers using ship-to-ship transfers, or even by fishing vessels.
Short of a blockade where every ship going to North Korea is searched, it’s impossible to shut down the flow of oil completely. All the sanctions really do is keep the Kim regime from buying oil legitimately on the open market. We can call out countries like Russia and China for violating the sanctions, but even if we could prove complicity conclusively, there isn’t much to be done. It is, after all, the UN we’re talking about.
No doubt Secretary General Guterres will send the dreaded “strongly worded letter” to both governments, warning them that if they continue their illegal selling of oil to North Korea, an even more “strongly worded letter” will be on the way.