BEIJING/WASHINGTON • China has denied reports that it has been illicitly selling oil products to North Korea, after United States President Donald Trump said he was not happy that China had allowed oil to reach the isolated nation.
"Caught RED HANDED - very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea," Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday. "There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!"
The US President later told The New York Times that he saw a report on the situation on Fox News that morning. "I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war," he said in a separate interview with The New York Times.
South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper this week quoted South Korean government sources as saying that US spy satellites had detected Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korean vessels about 30 times since October.
US officials have not confirmed details of the report.
Yesterday, South Korea said that it had seized a Hong Kong-flagged ship suspected of transferring oil to North Korea in defiance of the United Nations sanctions.
The South Korean Customs authorities searched the vessel, the Lighthouse Winmore, when it entered the country's Yeosu Port on Nov 24 after transferring 600 tons of refined petroleum to a North Korean vessel on Oct 19, the Yonhap news agency cited South Korean officials as saying.
A senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official told Reuters: "It is unclear how much oil the ship had transferred to North Korea, for how long and on how many occasions, but it clearly showed North Korea is engaged in evading the sanctions."
The South's Customs service concluded that the Lighthouse Winmore had loaded about 14,000 tons of Japanese refined petroleum products in South Korea on Oct 11, reportedly bound for Taiwan, the senior official said.
On Oct 19, it transferred as much as 600 tons to the North Korea-flagged Sam Jong 2 in international waters between China and the Korean peninsula, on the order of its charterer, Billions Bunker Group Corp, based in Taiwan, the ministry official added.
The Hong Kong government said it was "liaising with the Korean parties concerned to obtain further information about the incident, and will take appropriate action as necessary".
Employees at the office of Lighthouse Ship Management, the ship's registered manager, in the Chinese port city of Guangzhou, said they had no knowledge of the situation.
Both ships were among 10 vessels the US had proposed that the UN Security Council should blacklist for transporting banned items from North Korea.
On Dec 22, the council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea for its Nov 29 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang said put the entire US mainland within range of its nuclear weapons. The sanctions sought to further limit North Korea's access to refined petroleum products and crude oil.
Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters that she had noted recent media reports, including suggestions that a Chinese vessel was suspected of transporting oil to a North Korean vessel on Oct 19.
"The Chinese side has conducted immediate investigation. In reality, the ship in question has, since August, not docked at a Chinese port, and there is no record of it entering or leaving a Chinese port," she said.
She also said she was not aware if the vessel had docked in other countries, but the relevant media reports "did not accord with facts".
"China has always implemented UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to North Korea in their entirety and fulfils its international obligations. We never allow Chinese companies and citizens to violate the resolutions," said Ms Hua.
"If, through investigation, it is confirmed there are violations of the UN Security Council resolutions, China will deal with them seriously in accordance with laws and regulations."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE