North Koreans Illicit Oil Trade

On Thursday May 31st,2018 while visiting North Korea, Russians foreign minister Sergei Lavrov extended an offer to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit Moscow. This took place while most media was focused on meetings between North Korean negotiator Kim Yong Chol and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Moscow says it wants all parties to take a delicate approach towards North Korean denuclearization.  Moscow is also seeking the easing of sanctions prior to the conclusion of the process, in contradiction to U.S. policy, which is intended to prevent the North Koreans from pocketing early concessions during ongoing negotiations.

Pyongyang’s view of the denuclearization is dramatically different then that of the United States. Pyongyang has emphasized concerns that total denuclearization would leave the North vulnerable, saying it will only relinquish nuclear weapons in engage for a security guarantee from the United States.

The meeting between Kim and Lavrov was the first Russian official to be received by Kim Jong-un. Lavrov is Russia’s top diplomat and pictures were released of the two men shaking hands and smiling. The visit of Lavrov comes a very crucial time in the International Security community before next months planned meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump.

Last month, it was reported that Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s foreign minister, held talks with Lavrov in Moscow. It is very interesting that these talks are taking place with the summit between Pyongyang and the United States taking place in Singapore on June 14th, 2018. I believe that Moscow is trying to get a stake in the talks without being in Singapore during the actual meeting.

The meeting between Russia and North Korea comes after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Yong-Chol, Kim is one of the top lieutenants in the Workers party in North Korea.

. Russia and North Korea have a long-standing relationship that goes back to the end of World War II. Since the 1990s North Korea has relied on a robust black market and illict industries to meet such shortages that its state-run economy cannot meet, utilizing connections with Russian mafia groups.

It was reported that in recent months going back to December 2017. Russian tankers have been supplying fuel to North Korea on multiple occasions. It appears that the Russian vessels made the transfers at sea to the North Koreans, the transfers included oil and or petroleum products in direct violation of United Nation sanctions.

European security sources said the shipments did not appear to be backed by the Russian government, although its unclear how they reached this conclusion.

In a statement the United States Department of State said they have called on Russia and other U.N. members to make sure that sanctions against North Korea are strictly enforced and enforced properly and that all U.N. prohibited activities are put to an immediate end.

In addition to oil, Russian sanctions violators are also playing a major role in allowing the North Koreans to smuggle coal.

The Russian seaport of Kholmsk on Russia’s Far East coast has seen a major increase in the amount of vessels carrying North Korean coal, which is illegal to import due to United Nation’s sanctions against North Korea.

Ships flying multiple country flags have left North Korean ports loaded with coal and then “laundered” it by claiming the product is actually Russian coal, upon which there are no sanctions. The coal trade with Russia has been ongoing as early as January 2017. On August 5th, 2017 the United Nations officially banned the shipment of North Korean coal to any country.

Some of the “laundered” coal ended up in countries supportive of the North Korean sanctions including Japan and South Korea.

On February 28th, 2018, President Trump announced that sanctions against 28 different ships from  China and 7 other countries would be put in effect to close the loophole that allows North Korea to import oil and export coal. . The illegal ship-to-ship transfers of coal and oil have allowed North Korea to bypass sanctions that were put in place after repeated nuclear and missile tests.

These actions are the exact reasons that the Trump administration has imposed new economic sanctions on North Korean related shipping

The intervention of other parties, especially strategic adversaries like Russia remains a risk to ongoing U.S.-North Korean bilateral negotiations. This is particularly the case given Russian profiting from sanctions violation, and strategic desire to see North Korea remain a potential threat to U.S. interests in the region.