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North Korea at a crossroads

Illegal North Korean coal finds its way to South's power plants

About 35,000 tons smuggled through Russia in breach of sanctions

Despite international sanctions banning the import of North Korean coal, South Korea apparently received roughly 35,000 tons of the fuel between April and October 2017.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- Roughly 35,000 tons of North Korean coal were smuggled into South Korea between April and October of last year for later use by a subsidiary of the state utility, the South's Korea Customs Service said Friday.

Importing North Korean coal is prohibited under sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, and the U.S. remains committed to enforcing these penalties. The announcement reveals a serious breach in the international sanctions regime against Pyongyang, apparently involving an American ally, no less.

The U.S. could impose unilateral sanctions on the companies involved, South Korean media reported.

The coal was brought into South Korea in seven separate shipments worth a total of 6.6 billion won ($5.85 million), the customs service said. It was first shipped from the North to Russia, such as to the port of Kholmsk in Sakhalin, before being transferred to another vessel headed for the South. 

The fuel was then used at power stations run by Korea South-East Power, a unit of the South's state-run Korea Electric Power. South-East Power apparently believed the coal originated from Russia.

The incident will likely trigger greater scrutiny at home and overseas for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has pursued a conciliatory approach to the North. But Pyongyang will likely push back if Seoul ramps up the pressure at the behest of Washington. Moon, who sees himself as a mediator between North Korea and the rest of the world, would increasingly be torn between the conflicting demands of two sides.

The conservative opposition is gaining momentum in South Korea. In a piece published Friday, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party accused the government of willfully ignoring the coal shipments despite knowing they came from North Korea.

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