LONDON/MOSCOW • Russian tankers have supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months by transferring cargoes at sea, according to two senior Western European security sources, providing an economic lifeline to the secretive Communist state.
The sales of oil or oil products from Russia, the world's second biggest oil exporter and a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, breach UN sanctions, the security sources said.
The transfers in October and November indicate that smuggling from Russia to North Korea has evolved to loading cargoes at sea since Reuters reported in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to their homeland.
"Russian vessels have made ship-to-ship transfers of petrochemicals to North Korean vessels on several occasions this year in breach of sanctions," the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
A second source, who independently confirmed the existence of the Russian ship-to-ship fuel trade with North Korea, said there was no evidence of Russian state involvement in the latest transfers. "There is no evidence that this is backed by the Russian state but these Russian vessels are giving a lifeline to the North Koreans," the second European security source said.
The two security sources cited naval intelligence and satellite imagery of the vessels operating out of Russian Far Eastern ports on the Pacific but declined to disclose further details to Reuters.
Russia's Foreign Ministry and the Russian Customs Service both declined to comment when asked on Wednesday if Russian ships had supplied fuel to North Korean vessels. The owner of one ship accused of smuggling oil to North Korea denied any such activity.
The US State Department, in a statement, called on Russia and other UN members to "strictly implement" sanctions on North Korea and to work "more closely together to shut down UN-prohibited activities, including ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum and the transport of coal from North Korea."
The latest report came as China, responding on Friday to criticism from US President Donald Trump, denied it had illicitly shipped oil products to North Korea.
North Korea relies on imported fuel to keep its struggling economy functioning. It also requires oil for its intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear programme.
"The vessels are smuggling Russian fuel from Russian Far Eastern ports to North Korea," said the first security source.
Reuters was unable to independently verify that the vessels had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels, whether the Russian state knew about the sales or how many Russian vessels were involved in the transfers. It was also unclear how much fuel may have been smuggled.
Ship satellite positioning data consulted by Reuters shows unusual movements by some of the Russian vessels named by the security sources, including switching off the transponders which give a precise location. The security sources said the Russian-flagged tanker Vityaz was one vessel that had transferred fuel to North Korean vessels.
The Vityaz left the port of Slavyanka near Vladivostok in Russia on Oct 15 with 1,600 tonnes of oil, according to Russian port control documents. Documents submitted by the vessel's agent to the Russian State Port Control authority showed its destination as a fishing fleet in the Japan Sea.
Shipping data showed the vessel switched off its transponder for a few days as it sailed into open waters.
According to the security sources, the Vityaz conducted a ship-to-ship transfer with the North Korean flagged Sam Ma 2 tanker in open seas during October.
The owner of the Russian vessel denied any contact with North Korean vessels but also said it was unaware that the vessel was fuelling fishing boats.