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Trump warns China over ship-to-ship fuel sales to North Korea

US President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington

President Donald Trump warned that alleged illicit Chinese oil sales to North Korea may jeopardize a peaceful resolution to the confrontation over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

“Caught RED HANDED – very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea. There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!” Trump said on Twitter Thursday while at his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida.

U.S. spy satellites had observed Chinese vessels allegedly transferring oil to North Korean ships in the sea between the two countries about 30 times since October, Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported Dec. 26, citing unidentified South Korean government officials. Fox News, which Trump regularly watches, summarized the paper’s report on Wednesday.

Speaking later to the New York Times, Trump said he had “been soft” on China regarding trade in the hope that its leaders would do more to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. He called on China “to help us much more” and signaled he might otherwise take punitive trade actions.

“If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do,” Trump told the Times in an interview.

Trump has long been pressuring China to cut off all oil supplies to North Korea in a bid to halt Kim from gaining the ability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. China, North Korea’s main trading partner, has resisted any moves that could cause the regime to collapse and has called for a negotiations to resolve the conflict.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said earlier this week that she was unaware of any ship-to-ship oil transfers. China has been comprehensively implementing UN resolutions and would prosecute violations if solid evidence is presented, she said. Hua also questioned whether other countries were implementing parts of the resolution that call for a peaceful settlement to the North Korean conflict.

The U.S. in September sought to persuade the UN Security Council to pass a resolution banning oil exports to North Korea. That provision was dropped in the final document, which established limits on exports of petroleum products such as diesel and kerosene, but didn’t cut off crude sales.

Deeper Cuts

Last week, the Security Council approved tighter sanctions on North Korea, including measures aimed at slashing deliveries of petroleum products to the equivalent of 500,000 barrels per year starting Jan. 1. North Korea on Sunday described the UN move as an “act of war” and vowed to take revenge on the U.S. and other Security Council members.

The latest sanctions constitute a deeper cut than the September resolution, which demanded imports be lowered to the equivalent of 2 million barrels from 4.5 million. It also limits crude imports at current levels of about 4 million barrels annually, which the U.S. has said China provides via the Dandong-Sinuiju pipeline.

The new resolution also said North Korea is selling coal and other prohibited items “through deceptive maritime practices” and is getting fuel via ship-to-ship transfers, which are used in the petroleum industry to move liquids from one tanker to another at sea, avoiding on-shore infrastructure.

Ship-to-Ship Transfers

The U.S. Treasury Department last month accused North Korea of employing such methods and identified North Korea’s Korea Kumbyol Trading Co. as a firm that has attempted ship-to-ship transfers, possibly of oil.

In addition to the Choun Ilbo report, Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper this week reported North Korea has been utilizing these methods more frequently, using boats from nation’s including China, citing U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials it didn’t name.

To help stop the practice, the UN measure says that countries can seize, inspect, or impound any vessel in their ports if there are grounds to believe the ship is being used to transport banned items.

The latest tensions come just six weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the North Korean border.

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