Coronavirus Is Idling North Korea’s Ships, Achieving What Sanctions Did Not
27 Mar 2020

President Trump has called the coronavirus “the invisible enemy.” But when it comes to sanctions on North Korea, the pathogen may turn out to be his administration’s most effective ally.

North Korea’s fear of coronavirus infection appears to have achieved what Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korean nuclear and missile work has not: choking the North’s economy by stopping its trafficking of coal and other goods, prohibited under United Nations sanctions, which is believed to be mostly with China.

According to a satellite-image analysis published Thursday by the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based research organization, and a review of additional satellite imagery by The New York Times, many North Korean commercial vessels that once carried sanctioned material to and from China — or transferred them illicitly ship-to-ship at sea — are now idled in their home ports.

The change, seen after North Korea sought to seal itself off two months ago as neighboring China battled the coronavirus outbreak, effectively puts “an end to the large and coordinated efforts to evade United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSC) by shipping resources to China,” according to the analysis.

The State Department declined through a spokesperson to comment on the analysis or its implications.

The new findings show for the first time how a large number of North Korean ships have moved back to Nampo, a vital port region on North Korea’s western coast.

United Nations sanctions ban the export of many North Korean commodities — such as coal — and limit its fuel imports. However, a draft of the forthcoming annual report from a United Nations panel of experts that monitors compliance with the sanctions, which was seen by The Times, states that North Korea “continued to flout U.N. Security Council resolutions through illicit maritime exports of commodities, notably coal and sand. Such sales provide a revenue stream that has historically contributed to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

The U.N. report only covers the time frame up to early February, and does not account for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Royal United Services Institute satellite analysis shows that on March 3, 139 ships were idled in the Nampo area, which includes the anchorage and several ports, up from 50 ships a month earlier.

The fleet includes vessels previously implicated in sanctions evasion operations, which are often tracked through satellite imagery and aerial or ground surveillance by other states, independent research groups and the United Nations.

The institute’s analysis said the idled ships included some of the “most active and scrutinized oil tankers” used for the illicit import of refined petroleum products such as fuel. For example, the oil tanker New Regent, which had been spotted making unreported deliveries as recently as January 2020, and twice in 2019, according to the United Nations, was seen in Nampo in multiple satellite images. Other ships, too, have been floating unused for weeks, according to satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs, an earth-imaging company in San Francisco, and Maxar Technologies Inc., a space technology company in Westminster, Colo.

By Christoph Koettl, The New York Times, 26 March 2020

Read more at The New York Times

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