Japanese Spy Plane Catches Ship Illegally Selling Oil to North Korea

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(Image Courtesy: Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The Japanese government has released footage of what it claims is an oil tanker registered in the Maldives passing oil to a North Korean oil tanker. The incident, which took place in the dead of night, was observed by a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft passing through the area. The incident calls into question exactly why a Maldivian ship was involved in such an exchange, and who was the true source of the oil.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at midnight on February 24, a Japanese maritime patrol plane caught the Maldivian-flagged tanker Xin Yua 18 saddled up alongside the North Korean tanker Chon Ma San. Both ships had their lights turned on. The incident took place in the East China Sea 156 miles east of Shanghai.

Cho San Ma (Image Courtesy: Japan Ministry of Defence)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “Following a comprehensive assessment, the Government of Japan strongly suspects that they conducted ship-to-ship transfers banned by UNSCR.” The transfer of oil and other energy products to North Korea is under strict sanctions in response to the country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. And just the day before the alleged fuel transfer, the U.S. Treasury Department had sanctioned the Korea Achim Shipping Company, owner of the Chon Ma San, as part of sweeping effort to crack down on illegal energy sales to North Korea.

The Chon Ma San (International Maritime Organization # 8660313) is a 272-foot-long oil tanker, built in 2005. It has a gross tonnage of 2,808 tons and a deadweight of 3,565 tons, which comes out to about 25,000 barrels of oil. That’s not an insignificant amount considering UN Security Council Resolution 2375, passed unanimously in September 2017, caps the country’s total annual oil imports at just two million barrels. According to Japan, the ship’s name had been erased from the hull.

Xin Yuan 18 (Image Courtesy: Japan Ministry of Defence)

According to the Maldives Times the registered owner of the Xin Yua 18 is Ha Fa Trade International out of Hong Kong, China, whose director has a residential address in mainland China. The government of the Maldives denies that the ship was registered there, but acknowledges the ship’s Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, 455910000, is within the range assigned to Maldivian-flagged ships. The Maldivian president’s office stated the country will “pursue aggressive action against those who tarnish the good standing and reputation of our nation and that of our people.”

So just who was passing the gas to North Korea? The involvement of a Hong Kong company doesn’t necessarily mean it’s China. The arrangement could have been between North Korea and private actors, fuel smugglers working for themselves. In January, a Taiwanese fishing company owner was accused of smuggling fuel to North Korean tankers. Interestingly, the last known location of the Xin Yua 18 was off the coast of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where the fishing company owner had been based.

The incident at sea was witnessed by a Japan Maritime Self Defense Force P-3C Orion, flying from Kanoya Air Base. P-3C Orions are long range maritime patrol aircraft originally set up as anti-submarine warfare planes but also capable of maritime surveillance. Orions have proven versatile surveillance platforms capable of picking out detail at long range. Some of the only known footage of the infamous 1993 Blackhawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Somalia was shot by a U.S. navy P-3C Orion using its surveillance cameras to provide near-real time coverage of the unfolding battle.

(Source: Popular Mechanics)

Sea News, March 5