Malaysia intercepts N. Korean coal ship

Vessel undergoes inspection at Penang port after it was allowed to dock later

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia briefly prevented a North Korean ship carrying coal from entering its port in Penang because of a suspected breach of United Nations sanctions, a port worker and Malaysian maritime officials told Reuters yesterday.

The Kum Ya was carrying 6,300 tonnes of anthracite coal, according to a worker at Penang Port who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. It was later allowed to dock, where an inspection team accompanied by an armed escort boarded the ship.

A December 2016 UN Security Council resolution placed a cap on exports of North Korean coal, and urged member states to apply extra scrutiny on North Korean ships. Production of coal in North Korea is state-controlled and its exports are a key source of hard currency for the isolated country's banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Relations between North Korea and Malaysia, which have been friendly for decades, have soured following the assassination last month of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half-brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The North Korean ship had been initially prevented from entering Penang port due to a possible breach of UN sanctions, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) deputy director- general of operations Zulkifli Abu Bakar told Reuters without offering further details.

It was unclear what the inspectors were checking on. But the MMEA confirmed the ship had been stopped following instructions from Malaysia's Foreign Ministry.

The UN, in its annual reports on how members have complied with sanctions, has cited a number of instances over the past decade in which North Korean missile parts and coal connected to sanctioned entities were trans- shipped through Malaysia.

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world which buys North Korean coal, with China by far the biggest importer.

The Kum Ya listed its port of origin as Busan, South Korea. However, shipping data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows the cargo was loaded at the Huaneng Shandong Power Station Weihai, a coal-fired power plant in China. It then sailed to Penang through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, the data shows. The ship was carrying 20 crew members, and was scheduled to sail on to Singapore, the port worker said.

China said it halted all coal imports from North Korea starting on Feb 26, amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula following one of a series of Pyongyang missile tests. However, official data shows the value of China's coal imports from North Korea surged nearly 40 per cent last month. China imported US$97.6 million (S$136 million) worth of North Korean coal last month, up from US$70.1 million during the same period last year.

Its total imports from the North rose to US$176.7 million in the month, up 47 per cent from US$119.9 million a year earlier. It is not clear if the Chinese Customs data only covers the period before the official suspension came into force or the entire month.

Meanwhile, a new twice-weekly flight route operated by Air Koryo, North Korea's national carrier, officially opened between Pyongyang and the Chinese border city of Dandong on Tuesday, a development that may raise fresh doubts over whether Beijing is serious in imposing economic sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia intercepts N. Korean coal ship'. Print Edition | Subscribe