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These images show a ship-to-ship transfer, possibly of oil, to a North Korea-registered vessel at sea.   © Kyodo
International relations

Ship inspections aim to thwart sanctions-dodging North Korea

US and Japan steer partners away from potentially premature jump to dialogue

VANCOUVER, Canada/WASHINGTON -- A broad agreement Tuesday to increase inspections of vessels suspected to be smuggling oil to North Korea represents a victory for the hard-line, pressure-oriented approach favored by the U.S. and Japan.

"We must put an end to illicit ship-to-ship transfers that undermine U.N. sanctions," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared Tuesday at a meeting of foreign ministers in Vancouver. The event brought together top diplomats from 20 nations, mainly countries that supported South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War, to discuss security on the Korean Peninsula.

Sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council late last year seek to cut off resources for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs by slashing exports of refined petroleum products to the country by 90%. But it is widely known that the North is evading this restriction via transfers between ships in international waters. South Korea seized a Hong Kong-flagged tanker late last year alleged to be involved in such a transfer.

Slipping through the net

To address this loophole, a Security Council sanctions resolution adopted in September permits inspection of ships on the high seas, with the consent of the nation where the vessel is registered, if goods subject to sanctions are thought to be on board. If the other country does not cooperate, information on the vessel is to be reported to the U.N.

Such inspections typically start by making contact with the vessel via radio to confirm details such as its name, flag, destination and cargo. The captain may be asked to let inspectors on board to examine the ship's documentation and cargo. If any restricted goods are found, inspectors can demand that the vessel change its route or destination.

Vessels involved in high-seas smuggling to North Korea often are registered in countries seen as having lenient oversight of maritime operations, American and Japanese sources say. As these ships approach the transfer point, they shut off their automatic identification systems -- mandatory transmitters broadcasting information such as a vessel's position and speed -- before the cargo changes hands.

Once a ship switches its identification system back on, it will be put under observation or pursued by the U.S. military or other forces. As such, "turning the AIS off is in and of itself extremely unnatural," a senior official in Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force said.

"Very little military activity" has been needed to enforce the sanctions other than "information sharing so that we all understand what are the proper procedures to implement the sanctions," Tillerson told reporters after Tuesday's meeting.

China and Russia, which were not invited to Tuesday's talks, are alleged to be involved in smuggling oil to North Korea. It remains unclear whether they will cooperate in this effort, and how effective the effort can be if they do not.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang criticized the decision to limit the meeting to former allies of South Korea while leaving out China and Russia, saying the move "will only drive a wedge among the international community."

"When major parties to the Korean Peninsula issue are not present, such a meeting will not contribute to properly resolving the issue," he told reporters Wednesday.

Stay the course

Tokyo and Washington used the event to push other participants to stick with "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang, worried that countries farther from North Korea who consider the threat less pressing may be too eager to resolve the crisis through dialogue.

Ministers "unequivocally declared that North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear power" and affirmed that sanctions "will remain in place until North Korea changes its course and takes decisive, irreversible steps to denuclearize," co-hosts Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement summarizing the meeting.

"It's very significant that we were able to send a message that the international community will use every means at its disposal to apply maximum pressure" against North Korea, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters after the meeting. The diplomat asserted that he saw no signs of a preference for dialogue or a conciliatory approach in one-on-one meetings and chats with other foreign ministers.

When Tillerson proposed a meeting of Korean War-era allies in November, a skeptical Tokyo was hesitant to send Kono. Though the U.S. would not agree to talks with North Korea without concrete steps toward denuclearization, any calls for dialogue by other participants could send the wrong message.

Co-host Canada initially set the meeting for December, but it was postponed until early 2018 owing to overlap with a Security Council meeting Kono was to attend. With the scheduling conflict resolved, Tokyo discreetly sought and received assurances from Washington and Ottawa that the talks would not tilt too heavily toward dialogue. Tokyo also hoped that Kono would steer the conversation in Japan's preferred direction.

Support for the high-pressure strategy is mixed even within the U.S. government. Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis are more open to dialogue than other officials, while national security adviser H.R. McMaster and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley tend to talk tougher on North Korea.

Still in step

Kono, Tillerson and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha met Tuesday evening after the event, and they agreed to keep pressure on Pyongyang and support other countries to ensure sanctions are fully implemented.

The three agreed to lead the way on carrying out the sanctions resolutions, according to the Japanese side. They also affirmed that recent North-South talks on next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, the first formal dialogue between the neighbors in more than two years, are separate from talks aimed at the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul's account said the three ministers agreed to continue discussions to ensure that the opportunity presented by the bilateral talks can be used to further the cause of denuclearization.

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