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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea-linked smuggling ships made 25 stops in Japan

Vessels seen to be exporting coal, exposing gaping hole in sanctions enforcement

TOKYO -- Vessels suspected of illegally transporting North Korean coal entered Japanese ports at least 25 times since 2016, when an international ban on such exports took effect, highlighting a clear weakness in the global sanctions regime against the country.

The four ships, registered in Belize, Sierra Leone and Vanuatu, are alleged to have helped smuggle about 35,000 tons of North Korean coal into South Korea via Russia. The South Korean customs authority cracked down on the operation Aug. 10, and the ships are banned from entering the South's ports.

Coal exports are a vital source of foreign income for Pyongyang, and it is suspected that the ships were camouflaging the source of origin by traveling to third countries.

Between March 2016 and Aug. 7 of this year, these ships were inspected by Japan's transport ministry 25 times in ports such as Nagoya and Kobe, according to Tokyo MOU, a regional port state control group. The total number of stops might be even higher. It is unclear whether the ships engaged in smuggling of North Korean coal while in Japan.

One of the ships made a port call at Onomichi in Japan's Hiroshima Prefecture on Aug. 7, before moving on to South Korea, where it was caught. Two other North Korea-related ships are known to have stopped in Japan as recently as July.    

South Korean authorities have not determined whether the crews knew they were moving North Korean coal, which is under a blanket export ban by the United Nations to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring foreign currency. Still, two of the ships -- the Rich Glory and the Sky Angel -- were named in a March report to the U.N. Security Council for possible involvement in smuggling.

Despite boarding the ships, the Japanese authorities were likely unable to detect any violations because its inspections focused on safety, not enforcing sanctions. The Japan Coast Guard's separate look at the vessels uncovered no North Korean coal or other sanctions violations.

"It's possible that North Korean coal has entered Japan," said Katsuhisa Furukawa, who was part of a U.N. expert panel monitoring North Korea sanctions until 2016. He argued for more effective inspections of vessels, as well as a legal framework that lets Japanese authorities carry out the U.N. sanctions fully.

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