There is a Korean saying that “the foot of the candle is dark”. It sometimes refers to a situation in which you are not well aware of something happening to you or what you are doing. The adage seems to fit well into the suspected South Korean imports of internationally banned North Korean coal.
The suspicions of the smuggling of North Korean coal have been growing since there were first reports about two vessels that brought in 9,700 tonnes of North Korean coal disguised as coal from Russia last October. South Korean officials said three more suspected ships have visited South Korean ports as many as 52 times since last August, when the UN passed Resolution No 2371 that imposed a blanket ban on the overseas sale of North Korean coal, iron ore and other mineral resources.
Altogether, the number of cases of suspected North Korean coal smuggling being investigated by the Korea Customs Service has increased to nine. What’s more troubling is that the suspected ships have been allowed to roam the South Korean seas and ports even after local authorities came to know of the first two shipments through tips from the US government.
One importer of the suspected North Korean coal, Korea Southeast Power, insisted it thought it was buying Russian coal. But experts point out that a simple component analysis, which is usually done to imported coal, could determine its place of origin. The much cheaper price tag for the shipments was another indication it was from North Korea.
Granted, the utility company could have been duped by some dishonest merchants. But how can the company officials and Seoul government explain the fact that Korea Southeast Power, a subsidiary of the nation’s power monopoly Kepco, used the suspected North Korean coal to generate power? That is a flagrant violation of UN resolutions.
Any violation of the UN sanctions could jeopardise the Southeast Power and its parent company Kepco and local banks involved in the transactions of the coal cargoes in question. The possibility of a secondary boycott to the Korean firms and banks cannot be ruled out.
A bigger concern is the possibility that the Seoul government ignored or allowed laxity in dealing with the coal smuggling cases as part of its efforts to appease the North in line with the thaw in inter-Korean relations. That the customs service has apparently been dragging its feet on its investigation that started in early November last year also raises questions.
The government of President Moon Jae-in, which gives priority to reconciliation with the North, has already faced criticism that it is making premature moves to ease UN-led sanctions imposed due to the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.
The Moon government has already obtained exceptions to sanctions for inviting North Korean officials as well as athletes and a cheering squad to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February. Officials also publicly mention the need to reopen the joint industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong and resuming South Koreans’ tourist visits to the Kumgangsan mountain resort in the North.
These moves certainly run counter to the position of the international community, including the US, which last week added a Russian bank, two North Korean entities and a North Korean individual to the sanctions list. The latest actions reflect US frustration with a lack of progress in the North denuclearising.
It is unarguable that South Korea, facing the most immediate threat from the North’s weapons of mass destruction, is the last party to cause cracks in the international coalition to put the “maximum pressure” on the North.
It is the maximum pressure that forced the North Korean leadership to declare a moratorium on new nuclear and missile tests and come to the negotiation table. It is the same maximum pressure – not appeasement – that will force the North Korean regime to faithfully follow up on its denuclearisation commitment.
Regarding the North Korean coal smuggling, the most urgent thing is to find out the truth as soon as possible, make public the outcome of the investigation and work out measures to prevent recurrence of any such cases.