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N Korea at crossroads

Suspected North Korean coal smugglers made 8 port calls in Japan

Visits from ships banned by South Korea raise concerns about sanctions evasion

A North Korean tanker, below, is suspected of smuggling goods via a ship-to-ship transfer with a vessel of unknown nationality in the East China Sea in 2018. (Photo provided by Japan's Ministry of Defense via Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Three vessels banned by South Korea for illegally transporting coal from the North were found to have docked in Japan at least eight times over the past year, Nikkei has learned, raising questions as to whether Pyongyang is using Japanese ports to dodge a United Nations embargo.

The database of Tokyo MOU, an intergovernmental organization that monitors ship inspections, showed visits from three out of four vessels put cited by Seoul last August. The ships are thought to have sent coal via Russia to disguise its origin and evade the embargo.

The Togo-flagged Ga Hong -- which previously sailed under a Belize flag as the Shinning Rich -- docked at Hokkaido and another port in October, at Niigata in central Japan in December and in Akita Prefecture in June, with stops in Russia or China after each visit.

The Belize-flagged Jin Long logged three stops at Japanese ports between September and December while visiting China and Russia in between. The Sierra Leone-flagged Rich Glory entered the southern port of Kagoshima in early September before sailing on to Russia.

Ships subject to U.S. sanctions also docked in Japan twice last year, the Tokyo MOU database indicates.

Japan allowed these ships to come and go because it lacked legal authority to stop them. The transport ministry inspected the vessels each time but found no violations to support seizing them. Though North Korean-registered ships are legally barred from entering Japanese ports, this provision does not apply to vessels flying under a third country's flag.

Repeated visits by suspected ships raise concern that Japan is unknowingly helping the North's attempt to evade sanctions. The top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benzes seen carrying leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Hanoi and Vladivostok were shipped from the Netherlands to North Korea via a roundabout route through five countries, including a stop at Osaka port, The New York Times reported last month. Exports of such luxury goods have been banned under United Nations sanctions.

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