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South Korean vessel detained on suspicion of prohibited fuel transfers to the North

View of a Korean coast guard vessel from the deck of the CGC Boutwell during a joint training drill. (Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley/U.S. Coast Guard)
April 05, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A South Korean ship accused of transferring fuel to North Korea in defiance of U.N. sanctions has been detained for over six months for investigation by authorities in Seoul, South Korea’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

The P-Pioneer, a 5,160-tonne vessel now held in port at Busan in South Korea, is believed to have twice transferred diesel fuel in ship-to-ship transfers in September 2017, the AFP news service reported on April 3, citing Korea Coast Guard sources.

It is the first time that a South Korean vessel has been detained for violating U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs, a South Korean foreign ministry official told AFP on Wednesday.

No explanation was given for the delay in announcing the ship’s detention.

Speaking to RFA’s Korean Service on Wednesday, an official from South Korea’s foreign ministry confirmed the ship is being held for investigation.

“South Korean government authorities are currently undertaking an investigation into the P-Pioneer,” the ministry official said, adding, “Whether or not the UNSC [U.N. Security Council] resolutions will be applied to this vessel is being discussed in close consultation with the UNSC Sanctions Committee.”

Four vessels are currently detained in South Korea for allegedly violating U.N. sanctions against North Korea, the ministry official said.

“We are also investigating two others carrying Panama and Togo flags, though they are not being detained,” he added.

‘Pressure campaign’

Speaking to RFA on background, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that all U.N. member states are required to implement U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea.

“And we expect them all to continue doing so.”

“The United States continues to work with governments around the world to ensure all nations are fully implementing UN sanctions obligations. The pressure campaign will continue until the DPRK denuclearizes,” the State Department said, referring to North Korea by its formal name the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment on the ship’s detention, saying the department “generally does not comment on investigations, including to confirm whether or not one exists.”

“We do not publicly discuss or speculate on potential enforcement decisions, or prospective actions,” the Treasury Department said.

South Korea’s holding of the P-Pioneer demonstrates that South Korea is willing to comply with U.N. sanctions and investigate their violation, Matthew Ha—a research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies—told RFA on Wednesday, calling the ship’s detention “a good sign.”

“South Koreans are willing to hold themselves accountable,” Ha said.

“We need to see strong enforcement of the sanctions as we are trying to bring the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.”

Careful scrutiny of South Korean behavior is still necessary, however, sanctions expert Joshua Stanton—an Institute for China-America Studies Fellow, also based in Washington—said, pointing to policy initiatives by South Korean president Moon Jae-in aimed at improving relations with the nuclear-armed North.

“We are entitled to ask South Korea if it’s taking its obligations seriously,” Stanton said. “People wonder.”

Reported by Yongjae Mok, Kyung Ha Rhee, and Soyoung Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yewon Ji. Written in English by Richard Finney.