South Korea probes firms over alleged North Korean coal imports

A group of activists stages a rally in Seoul, South Korea, on July 23, 2018.
A group of activists stages a rally in Seoul, South Korea, on July 23, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean authorities are investigating local firms for allegedly importing North Korean coal into the country last year in breach of UN sanctions, an official said Tuesday (July 31).

The probe comes after Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers last week that a total of 9,000 tonnes of North Korean coal was imported into the South via Russia on two cargo ships last year.

The coal was reportedly transferred to the Russian port of Kholmsk, reloaded onto the two ships and then brought to the South Korean ports of Incheon and Pohang last October.

"We are investigating a multiple number of companies for importing North Korean coal," a spokesman for the Korea Customs Service told AFP, adding that the firms were South Korean.

He declined to give further details, but Yonhap news agency reported that two companies were under investigation.

"We will take relevant measures in accordance with the outcome of the investigation," a foreign ministry official was quoted as saying by Yonhap.

"We are in close cooperation with the United States to faithfully implement the UNSC resolutions."

Last year the UN Security Council adopted a series of resolutions to ban North Korean exports of commodities in a bid to cut off revenue to the nuclear-armed regime's weapons programmes.

North Korea reportedly earned US$200 million (S$272 million) in revenue last year from exports of coal, iron, steel and other banned commodities.

In March the UN Security Council blacklisted 27 ships, 21 companies and a businessman for helping the North circumvent sanctions.

A recent diplomatic thaw culminated in a historic meeting between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.

But there has been little evidence of concrete post-summit progress on the key issue of denuclearisation, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling lawmakers last week that Pyongyang was continuing to make fissile material.