South Korea seizes ship it claims transferred oil to North Korea

South Korea has seized a Hong Kong-registered ship that allegedly transferred oil to a North Korean vessel in violation of United Nations sanctions.

According to an official from the South Korean Foreign Ministry, the Lighthouse Winmore departed from the port of Yeosu in South Korea carrying refined oil which was then transferred to a North Korean ship in international waters on October 19.

“UN Security Council sanctions prohibit the transfer of anything to a North Korean ship,” the official told CNN, adding the Lighthouse Winmore was seized when it re-entered Yeosu on November 24.

The ship and its crew are still in South Korean custody and under investigation. There were 23 Chinese nationals and two Burmese nationals on board the ship, officials said, adding they will “leave the country … when the investigation concludes.”

The Lighthouse Winmore was one of 10 ships the US asked the UN to ban from international ports this month over its alleged dealings with North Korea, according to Reuters.

That move came after the UN blacklisted four ships in October, including one that was caught smuggling 30,000 North Korean-made rocket-propelled grenades in 2016.

According to South Korea, the Lighthouse Winmore was being leased by a Taiwanese company, the Billions Bunker Group, and was en route to Taiwan when it made a ship-to-ship transfer of its oil cargo to four ships, including one North Korean ship.

“This is one of the main ways in which North Korea uses an illegal network to circumvent UN Security Council sanctions,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said. It is customary in South Korea that officials do not give their names.

‘Very disappointed’ in China

The US Treasury Department released satellite imagery in November of two ships performing an allegedly illegal ship-to-ship transfer in international waters on October 19.

One of the ships was identified as a sanctioned North Korean vessel, the Rye Song Gang 1, but the other ship was not named.

South Korean officials could not confirm Friday if that ship was the Lighthouse Winmore.

News reports of the alleged transfer prompted tweets from US President Donald Trump Thursday, in which he said Beijing had been “caught red handed” allegedly selling oil to North Korea.

China has denied its vessels have traded with North Korean ships.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday reiterated that Beijing is enforcing all UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, aimed at curbing Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons development.

In an interview with the New York Times published Thursday, Trump claimed “oil is going into North Korea” and appeared to blame China, saying if Beijing fails to put pressure on Pyongyang then the US may take punitive economic actions against Beijing.

“China on trade has ripped off this country more than any other element of the world in history has ripped off anything,” Trump said.

“If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do. China can help us much more, and they have to help us much more.”

He added: “China’s hurting us very badly on trade, but I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war.”

A senior US State Department official told CNN Thursday the US is “aware that certain vessels have engaged in UN-prohibited activities, including ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum and the transport of coal from North Korea.”

“We have evidence that some of the vessels engaged in these activities are owned by companies in several countries, including China,” the official said. “We condemn these acts and hope that any UNSC members, including China, work more closely together to shut down smuggling activities.”

Pyongyang has for years used deceptive shipping practices to help bring in revenue for the country’s regime, analysts say, and the US has called for more to be done to crackdown on ships transporting goods to and from North Korea.

UN Security Council resolutions passed this year stipulate “all Member States shall prohibit the entry into their ports of such designated vessels,” save for some circumstances, including in emergencies or if they are granted humanitarian exceptions by the UN.