Seoul’s coal imports may be upsetting Washington

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Seoul’s coal imports may be upsetting Washington

The South Korean government is in a pickle over continued allegations that it is overlooking North Korean coal being smuggled into the country while the United States insists on its “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang.

John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, revealed he talked with Chung Eui-yong, his South Korean counterpart, over the issue of dodgy coal imports to South Korea Tuesday.

“We continue to push for what we call maximum pressure on North Korea, no violation of the sanctions, no relief on the sanctions,” Bolton told Fox Business on Tuesday. “Just this morning, a few hours ago, coincidentally, I spoke to the South Korean national security adviser, my opposite number, who was telling me about me about the investigations they’re conducting of some of these coal smuggling operations.”

Bolton continued, “They’ve been cooperating fully with us, and they’ll do what’s appropriate under South Korean law, including prosecution.”

However, he added that the administration has also “looked at ways to increase enforcement of the existing sanctions, not yet putting new sanctions on but making sure the existing sanctions are not evaded.”

The U.S. Treasury Department last Friday blacklisted a Russian bank with links to the North Korean nuclear and ballistic program, along with two other entities and a North Korean official based in Moscow. This comes despite North Korea’s call for easing of sanctions, especially as it claims it has taken a series of important measures following the June 12 summit between leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

“We think what brought North Korea to the table was the sanctions,” said Bolton, “and the risk of military force down the road, and I think we need to keep that in front of them to get the North Koreans do what they committed to do in Singapore, which is to denuclearize.”

Some observers speculated that Bolton could be warning Seoul not to turn a blind eye on sanctions cheating by the North.

The Blue House said Wednesday that Bolton’s conversation with Chung on the investigation into the suspected North Korean coal shipments came about during “usual consultations” between the South Korean and U.S. National Security Councils.

“Adviser Chung had various consultations with Adviser Bolton both last week and this week continuously on the topic of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula on a regular basis,” said Yoon Young-chan, the Blue House senior secretary, said through a statement.

The South Korean government earlier this week said that it has been investigating nine cases of suspected North Korean coal shipments potentially violating UN resolution.

A recent UN report found that there had been shipments of North Korean coal disguised as Russian imports to Korea last October. A series of media reports have indicated that coal shipments of murky origins have entered the country, even after a comprehensive coal ban by the United Nations Security Council implemented last August, and that suspicious coal has come into South Korean ports as recently as this week.

UN Security Council Resolution 2397, adopted last December, allows a country to seize, inspect and impound a vessel at its ports if there are “reasonable grounds to believe” they are involved in the transport of items prohibited by sanctions, including coal. North Korea has especially been noted to export its sanctioned items using deceptive maritime practices, such as ship-to-ship transfers.

Rep. Yoo Ki-june, who is in charge of a task force by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) to examine the North Korean coal issue, on Sunday named three additional vessels - the Jin Long, An Quan Zhou 66 and Shinning Rich - suspected of carrying North Korean coal to the South over 50 times since last August. This include the Belize-registered Jin Long, which unloaded over 5,000 tons of coal, which South Korean authorities claimed were confirmed as Russian, on Tuesday in Pohang in North Gyeongsang. Because it was not found to be violating UN sanctions by customs officials, Seoul authorities said the vessel was free to leave.

Another vessel Yoo had called out, the Shinning Rich, entered the port in Pyeongtaek last week and, as of Wednesday, vessel-tracking database Marine Traffic shows the ship to be back off the coast of Tianjin, China.

The LKP task force has claimed the Shinning Rich, also Belize-registered, brought into the South over 10,000 tons of coal suspected to be from North Korea in May.

The opposition LKP and Bareunmirae parties on Wednesday called for a fact-finding probe into the suspected import of North Korean coal disguised as being of Russian origins, along with a special investigation.

Kim Sung-tae, floor leader of the LKP, said, “President Moon Jae-in has to reveal if the government has known about the North Korea coal issue and has been abetting it, or whether it had not known about the dozens of entries by the related vessels” to South Korea.

Kim Eui-kyeom, the Blue House spokesman, said, “The United States has not raised any claims to our government on UN or U.S. sanctions.”

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