In a move aimed at evading U.N. sanctions, North Korea is exporting coal to foreign buyers by sending shipments first to Russian ports, where the coal is falsely labeled as Russian-origin, North Korean sources say.
The export of North Korean coal is strictly banned under international sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its illicit nuclear weapons program, but North Korea has now opened new routes for trade with Russian help, a trade worker in North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service.
“As sanctions on North Korea came into effect a couple of years ago, export routes for coal were blocked,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“So North Korean trading companies have been shipping coal to the ports of Nakhodka and Vladivostok in the southern part of Primorsky Krai, in Russia. North Korean coal is then disguised as having come from Russia and is sent on to other countries under fake documents,” he said.
Loading ports for North Korean coal were formerly at Nampo and Songrim, on North Korea’s west coast close to China, but have now been moved to Chongjin and Wonsan, on the country’s eastern coast close to Russia, he said.
“When North Korean coal arrives at Nakhodka, a Russian company records its time of arrival, the length of the ship’s stay in port, and the amount of coal taken off. They then create false papers including a statement of the coal’s quality,” he said.
With these documents declaring the coal to be of Russian origin, “North Korea now has no problem exporting coal to other countries,” he said.
“The name of the Russian company that my company has been working with is Greenwich, and is located at the port in Nakhodka,” RFA’s source said. “They ask for two dollars per ton to disguise North Korean coal as Russian, and the North Korean trading company pays them right away.”
Still in demand
Also speaking to RFA, a North Korean trade worker based in the Chinese border city of Dandong said that North Korean representatives based in South and North Pyongan provinces collect information on countries needing coal and act as brokers for its export.
“Coal from these western-district mines is very high quality, so there is still a demand for it from other countries even though sanctions are in force,” he said.
A 30 percent deposit from the buying countries is required before the coal begins to move, with 30 percent of the balance due when the coal leaves its Russian port. The remaining 40 percent is then paid when the coal arrives at its final destination, the source said.
“For this three-step payment process, the money is deposited in a “borrowed” Chinese bank account, with the North Korean trading company paying banking fees,” he said.
Some of the coal sent from Russia now goes to South Korea and Japan, RFA’s source said.
“But North Korean company names don’t appear on the shipping papers, so the North Korean trading firms aren’t worried at all,” he said.
South Korea’s foreign ministry on Tuesday dismissed allegations that a foreign-flagged ship seen earlier at Nakhodka had delivered North Korean coal to South Korea’s southeastern port of Pohang, claiming the ship’s cargo was of Russian origin, according to an Aug. 7 report by the Yonhap news service.
“Critics here question the left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration’s resolve to curb the transport of North Korean coal,” a source of hard currency for the sanctions-hit Pyongyang regime, Yonhap said.
“But the government has stated that it remains committed to strictly abiding by U.N. mandates despite inter-Korean reconciliation,” Yonhap added.
The United States has meanwhile pointed to what it calls credible reports that Russia is in violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Aug. 4 urging full compliance with measures aimed at forcing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.