Kim Jong-un evading oil sanctions even as he asks for more concessions

Assuming the expected summit between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump takes place this winter they’ll have yet another unpleasant agenda item to take up. In addition to expanding their long-range missile sites, it appears that the North Koreans have been flagrantly violating sanctions on energy imports by conducting oil transfers at sea. The U.S. military, in conjunction with Japan and other allies in the region, has concluded that North Korea is still receiving banned oil imports, thwarting sanctions by conducting fuel transfers on the open ocean. (NBC News)

A top secret U.S. military assessment found that North Korea is still evading U.N. sanctions by transferring oil at sea, and that a coalition of U.S.-led forces deployed to disrupt the movements has failed to dent the overall number of illegal transfers, three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence told NBC News.

The finding underscores the Trump administration’s struggle to maintain economic pressure on North Korea amid a diplomatic bid to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile arsenal. The smuggled fuel provides a crucial lifeline for the regime’s economy and armed forces.

The U.S. Pacific Command assessment, labeled “Top Secret,” found that the presence of warships and surveillance aircraft deployed by an eight-nation coalition since September has forced North Korea to adjust its tactics at sea, including transferring oil farther away from the Korean Peninsula and often in other countries’ territorial waters.

When they speak of conducting fuel transfers in the territorial waters of “other countries,” it’s not much of a mystery who they’re talking about. China has already been quite lax in upholding the sanctions for more than a year, though others may be involved.

Another question involves who is participating in delivering the oil. Remember that China isn’t a net oil exporter. They have to import most of what they use themselves. In one photo included in this report, the ship seen offloading oil to a North Korean tanker is flying the flag of the Dominican Republic. Of course, the odds that the oil actually came from there are slim to none, so there is obviously a complex system in place to transfer fuel to Pyongyang.

In order for the President’s talks of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula to succeed, he needs to be able to maintain sustained economic pressure on Kim. It’s bad enough that China is already loosening the constraints, but if Kim has a steady oil supply available to him, that not only fuels his military ambitions (literally) but represents another source of black market hard currency.

This episode serves as yet another reminder that as noble as Trump’s intentions may be in these negotiations, Kim Jong-un cannot be trusted. He will lie to our faces every chance he gets and exploit every advantage. And the world isn’t as united against the diminutive dictator as we might wish. There are foreign powers out there willing to help him, even if they have to do so in secret.