WASHINGTON—Beijing and Washington clashed over a U.S. push to blacklist cargo ships for violating international sanctions against North Korea, including one vessel South Korea said it seized after an illegal transfer of oil.
The confrontation, playing out in jockeying at the United Nations, comes amid an escalating war of words between President
and Beijing over China’s willingness to tightly enforce sanctions following Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile tests. China’s critics say it has agreed to tough-sounding Security Council resolutions while modulating how strictly the sanctions are actually enforced. China denies it violates sanctions.
The Trump administration has been arguing for a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang, but some U.S. officials say they have mounting concerns that China is leaving room for a partial evasion of the sanctions, depriving Mr. Trump of some of the leverage he seeks.
Earlier this month, American officials shared with the U.N. declassified intelligence reports that they said supported Washington’s position that 10 vessels be formally designated as sanctions violators. South Korea disclosed Friday that it had seized one of the listed ships.
But China successfully got the list whittled down to just four vessels, according to diplomats familiar with its communications to the U.N. sanctions committee.
China’s role is crucial because the sanctions committee operates by consensus and reports to the Security Council, where Beijing holds a veto. Chinese officials at the U.N. didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beijing’s stance seemed to reinforce the White House’s concerns about maritime violations of sanctions imposed on North Korea. In a post to his Twitter account on Thursday, Mr. Trump said he was “very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea.”
The ship detained by South Korea—the Hong Kong-registered Lighthouse Winmore—is suspected of transferring oil to a North Korean vessel in violation of a Security Council resolution establishing strict limits on the amount of refined petroleum that can be provided to North Korea, a Seoul official said.
The Winmore is alleged to have transferred up to 600 tons of oil to a North Korean ship on Oct. 19, days after loading the fuel at Yeosu, South Korea, the official said. The ship was held by South Korean customs officials on Nov. 24 after it returned to Yeosu, the official said. The Winmore isn’t among the four ships China agrees to be blacklisted.
U.N. member countries are required to bar blacklisted ships from their ports.
But the sanctions committee’s decision not to list the Winmore doesn’t preclude South Korea undertaking its own action to enforce previous sanctions resolutions.
The four ships the Chinese agreed to list includes three vessels that operate under the North Korean flag: the Ul Ji Bong 6, Rung Ra 2 and Rye Song Gang 1. The fourth is the Panamanian-flagged vessel Billions No. 18.
The ships the Chinese didn’t agree to designate as sanctions violators are the Lighthouse Winmore, Xin Sheng Hai, Kai Xiang, Yu Yuan, Glory Hope 1 and Sam Jong 2, whose registered owner is a Chinese company, according to the U.S. submission to the U.N.
The declassified American intelligence, which was presented to the U.N., includes a series of photos taken Oct. 19 showing the Lighthouse Winmore side by side with the Sam Jong 2, allegedly engaged in an illicit ship-to-ship transfer of oil or refined petroleum.
Other photos show the Yu Yuan taking on a load of coal at Wonsan, North Korea, on Aug. 12 and unloading it on Sept. 5 at Kholmsk, Russia. Some of the declassified intelligence was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
In a formal communication to the sanctions committee, a Chinese official said Beijing’s decision on which ships to list was based on the evidence but didn’t discuss the cases in detail.
Some U.S. officials say China has tried to avoid listing ships that might have links to Chinese companies.
South Korean officials described the Lighthouse Winmore’s actions as a textbook example of sanctions busting.
“This case is representative of how North Korea tries to tactically go around U.N. Security Council sanctions using illegal networks,” a South Korean official said. “Seoul authorities will report to the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee after taking relevant action.”
The Lighthouse Winmore’s crew members will be allowed to return to their home countries after investigations are completed, the official said. He couldn’t confirm a report from South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap news agency that said the Winmore had 25 crew members who were Chinese and Myanmar nationals.
The ship operates as a Hong Kong-flagged vessel. Its registered owner is Win More Shipping Ltd. and beneficial owner is Lighthouse Ship Management Ltd.
Calls to the company secretary listed on Win More Shipping’s Hong Kong registry filing went unanswered Friday.
The South Korean government official said the ship was being rented out to the Taiwanese entity Billions Bunker Group at the time of the suspected violation. The entity is also linked to Billions No. 18, according to the American data.
Contact information for Billions Bunker couldn’t be located.
A Security Council resolution passed last week gives member states more authority to seize the ships that have breached international sanctions and ban them from their ports.
The current violations pertain to two earlier resolutions. One resolution, which was approved in September after North Korea conducted a nuclear test, restricts the amount of refined petroleum that can be provided to North Korea, among other measures. The other resolution, adopted in August after North Korea carried out two intercontinental ballistic missile tests, bans North Korea’s coal exports, which American officials say have been the country’s largest source of external revenue.