South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it is closely communicating with the US on the issue of suspected North Korean coal shipped to South Korea, amid concerns that the North may be exploiting gaps in the international sanctions regime.
The US Department of State also reiterated that it is closely coordinating with South Korea on North Korean issues and implementing international sanctions against the country.
“The Republic of Korea is a faithful and reliable partner in the maritime implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions,” said a State Department spokesperson.
“The US and the ROK work closely together on North Korea issues, and remain in close contact to coordinate our unified response to the DPRK.”
DPRK is an acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The South Korean government said it had been investigating the allegations since October and is currently looking into the nine cases in which North Korean coal disguised as Russian products was possibly brought into the South in violation of UN resolutions.
The State Department’s comments came after the US broadcaster VOA reported that the Belize-flagged ship Jin Long had docked at South Korea’s southeastern port city of Pohang over the weekend after being spotted at the Russian port of Nakhodka with black material believed to be North Korean coal.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the coal had been found to be from Russia and there had been “no confirmation of a violation” of the UN Security Council resolutions.
The ship left the South Korean port on Tuesday.
An official from Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity that there was no solid evidence to intern the vessels suspected of carrying around North Korean coal.
The ongoing investigation focuses on finding out whether the coal was actually from North Korea, whether the local traders intended to import North Korean coal and whether it constituted a breach of domestic laws. The probe result is to be closely shared with the sanctions committee, according to the official.
The official said relevant authorities had nearly finished looking into the cases and more information would be disclosed once the probe ends.
The ships suspected of carrying North Korean coal also entered ports in Japan, which is at the forefront of enforcing sanctions on the North, on several occasions, but the Japanese government did not impose any punishment -- such as retrieving the vessels -- due to the lack of solid evidence, according to the official.
Despite the ongoing investigation, critics, mostly from the conservative bloc, accused the South Korean government of lax enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea and a dragged-out investigation into the cases amid a rare thaw in inter-Korean relations.
Some went as far as to blast the liberal Moon Jae-in administration for condoning the suspected coal imports from North Korea and risking South Korea’s alliance with the US.
South Korea’s presidential office on Wednesday dismissed allegations of a crack in the alliance between South Korea and the US over Seoul’s handling of the issue, saying the US has never complained about it and had deep trust in South Korea.
The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea in August 2017, banning exports of coal from the North, along with other minerals, to cut off an important source of foreign currency that Pyongyang needs to fund its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.
UN member states are also required to stop and inspect vessels suspected of engaging in illicit activities with the North, in accordance with the UN resolution passed in December last year.