Japan IDs Two Vessels in Banned North Korean Fuel Transfer

Courtesy MOFA

Published Nov 27, 2019 5:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has identified another foreign vessel suspected of conducting banned ship-to-ship petroleum transfers with North Korean tankers. 

According to the ministry, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer escort Sendai encountered potential sanctions violation activity in the East China Sea earlier this month. Before dawn of November 13, the Sendai's crew observed the North Korean-flagged tanker Mu Bong 1 (IMO 8610461) lying alongside a small vessel of unknown nationality on the high seas about 150 nautical miles off Shanghai - a known hotspot region for sanctions-busting petroleum transfers. The two vessels were connected with hoses, and the smaller of the two appeared to have its identifying markings obscured by a sheet or tarpaulin over the stern. 

"Following a comprehensive assessment, the Government of Japan strongly suspects that they conducted ship-to-ship transfers banned by United Nations Security Council Resolution," the ministry said. "Japan notified the Security Council Committee (Panel of Experts) of this incident and shared information with related countries."

High seas petroleum transfers to North Korean vessels are prohibited under U.N. Security Council economic sanctions on Pyongyang's nuclear program. The United Nations and the United States have designated dozens of vessels and entities (including non-North Korean nationals) in connection with alleged violations of these sanctions. The Mu Bong 1, though connected with North Korean entities, has not yet been explicitly added to the U.S. list. 

American naval and coast guard assets have contributed to the sanctions monitoring effort in the East China Sea, including a recent tour by the Coast Guard cutter Stratton. The U.K., Canada, Australia, France and New Zealand have also contributed surface vessels and aircraft to the mission.

Last year, the Trump administration pursued U.N. permission to conduct high-seas boardings of vessels suspected of engaging in sanctions-busting. China and Russia, which have permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, both objected to the plan. Without U.N. diplomatic cover or the permission of the suspect vessel's flag state, a forcible boarding in international waters may be interpreted as an act of war.