January 13, 2018 8:21 pm JST

Japan defense force ships watching for North Korea smuggling at sea

Patrol vessels monitor whether foreign oil deliveries are breaking sanctions

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels have been sent to waters off the Korean Peninsula since late last year in their first involvement in efforts to crack down on North Korea's attempts to evade international sanctions, government sources said Friday.

Following a request from the U.S. military in December, MSDF ships have been deployed to areas including the Yellow Sea to monitor whether refined oil is being transferred from foreign ships to North Korea vessels in violation of U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, they said.

The Japanese government may report on that effort to an international meeting of foreign ministers on North Korean issues to be held in Vancouver, Canada, on Tuesday.

According to the sources, when engaged in that mission the MSDF follows standard rules for warning and surveillance activities. As such the main purpose is to monitor the movement of foreign ships and collect information to share with the United States. The MSDF does not forcibly inspect ships, as it is not authorized to do so unless certain conditions are met under the Self-Defense Forces Law.

But the Japanese government believes the activities will add to pressure not only on North Korea, but also on China and Russia, which allegedly have been economic enablers of North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs.

So far the MSDF sends vessels to areas where its P-3C aircraft find suspicious ships while patrolling daily over the East China Sea and elsewhere.

In the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean Peninsula, the MSDF ships have sometimes sailed as far as the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border between North and South Korea, the sources said.

The MSDF takes photos of suspicious ships and provides information to the United States, Japan's key ally that is leading global efforts to impose tough economic sanctions on North Korea, according to the sources.

The MSDF is also engaging in similar missions in the Sea of Japan.

A senior MSDF official, however, admitted that it is not clear whether the Japanese efforts would yield substantial results in foiling suspected oil smuggling to North Korea.

"We cannot forcibly investigate ships. They could leave the area and sail to a different location to meet (a North Korean ship) and transfer the items," the official said. "The activities have significance in tightening the net around North Korea, but the actual effects remain uncertain."

The U.N. Security Council has imposed stepped-up sanctions against North Korea as it continues to test-fire missiles and carry out nuclear tests.

Last September, a council resolution prohibited the ships of U.N. member states from engaging in the transfer of any goods or items to or from North Korean-flagged vessels at sea.

Following Pyongyang's test-firing in late November of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile it claims is capable of striking anywhere in the United States, a new sanctions resolution was adopted, which targeted around 90 percent of refined petroleum product exports to North Korea.

But foreign media have reported a Hong Kong cargo ship and Russian tankers had transferred refined oil to North Korean ships at sea. South Korean and other media have also reported the possible involvement of Chinese ships in suspected North Korean smuggling activities.

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