Detained tanker manager silent on alleged North Korean link

Ship-to-ship transfers are banned under sanctions against North Korea. Credit: Getty images


The owner of a tanker that has been suspected of engaging in ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels has stayed tight-lipped.


On 1 January 2018, South Korean authorities announced that another vessel, the Panama-flagged 2008-built 8,008 dwt products tanker Koti, was detained in Pyeongtaek port, also for alleged ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels.


IHS Markit's vessel-tracking data show that Panama-flagged Koti, operated by Hong Kong-registered Harmonized Resources Shipping Management, sailed from Taichung, Taiwan, to Yeosu in April 2017. Since then, recorded movements show that Koti had been sailing around Yeosu, Gwangyang, and Pyeongtaek, although there were gaps in its whereabouts, spanning one to two months.


The three vessels owned by Harmonized Resources are all managed by Dalian Grand Ocean Shipping Management, which is based in Dalian, China. When Fairplay contacted the latter company, an employee there denied that any illegal activity has been committed.


The employee said, “The vessel is being investigated and hasn’t been arrested. I can’t comment more on the commercial activities.”


The United Nations has imposed many sanctions on North Korea, in response to the isolated country's growing belligerence that have seen it launch a series of missile tests. Under Resolution 2375, adopted in September 2017, UN member countries are barred from engaging in ship-to-ship transfers of any cargoes for North Korea. On 22 December 2017, the UN adopted Resolution 2397, enabling a country to seize and investigate any ship suspected of dealing with North Korea.


News of the detention of Koti came shortly after Lighthouse Winmore, a 2014-built 16,500 dwt Hong Kong-flagged chemical/products tanker, and its crew members, was detained in South Korea's Yeosu port on 29 December 2017.


Lighthouse Winmore is alleged to have moved part of its cargo, comprising 600 tonnes of oil products, to North Korean vessels via ship-to-ship transfers on 19 October 2017.


A statement released by Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) said that its own checks showed that the Lighthouse Winmore loaded fuel oil in domestic waters on two occasions in 2017.


The statement said, “The vessel has not yet been declared by the UN Security Council as being sanctioned.”


The MOTC also said that while reports alluded to the tanker charterer Billions Bunker as a Taiwanese company, its checks showed that the latter is incorporated in the Marshall Islands.


“As to whether Taiwanese nationals are involved in Billions Bunker, the matter is under investigation,” said the ministry.


According to the Marshall Islands registry, Billions Bunker was registered in February 2014. Fairplay's checks showed that Billions Bunker operates from an office in Kaohsiung. Fairplay was told by sources that Billions Bunker is part of a group headed by Taiwanese fishery Ying Cai Marine Enterprise. Billions Bunker procures marine fuels that are then supplied to the group's fishing vessels. However, Fairplay’s attempts to contact Billions Bunker for comment were unsuccessful as phone calls to the latter’s office went unanswered.


MOTC emphasised that all vessels that have been sanctioned or that have breached UN sanctions are barred from entering Taiwanese ports, adding that information about such ships have been sent to the respective port authorities.


Vessel-tracking data from IHS Markit's Maritime Portal showed that Lighthouse Winmore entered Kaohsiung on 1 September 2017 and from there, sailed to Yeosu, hovering around the latter and its twin port, Gwangyang, for most of September. After 24 September 2017, no further movements were detected, until 1 October 2017, when Lighthouse Winmore entered Yeosu again.


On 27 October 2017, Lighthouse Winmore departed Gwangyang for Luhuashan, China, arriving on 1 November 2017. The tanker left for Taiwan, arriving in Taichung on 4 November 2017. Lighthouse Winmore then re-entered Yeosu on 23 November 2017.


The tanker was initially detained for an unknown number of days, after 24 defects relating to its emergency generators and lifesaving appliances, among others, were found during Port State Control inspections.


However, South Korean authorities said that the vessel entered Yeosu on 11 October 2017 to collect oil products sold by a Japanese refinery, before allegedly transferring the cargoes to four North Korean vessels, including one named Sam Jong 2. Lighthouse Winmore had claimed it would be sailing to Taiwan from Yeosu.

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