North Korea is accused of a “substantial breach” of restrictions on annual fuel imports, with UN officials finding it has rapidly accelerated its acquisition of vessels and is using deceptive shipping practices to avoid detection. 

UN sanctions cap North Korea’s imports of refined petroleum at 500,000 barrels per year, as part of efforts to pressure the country into winding down its nuclear and missile programmes. 

But a report produced by a UN Security Council panel of experts suggests nearly 800,000 barrels were delivered to the western port of Nampo over an eight-month period last year. 

Evidence submitted to the UN by 52 countries, including all G7 nations and all EU member states bar Sweden, says analysis of vessel behaviour helps identify 45 tanker deliveries that took place between January and August 2022. 

Even if those vessels were only loaded to 60% of their capacity – a situation that “would be neither financial nor logistically sound” – volumes of imports would still be in breach of sanctions, that report says. Russia and China dispute the accuracy of the claims. 

“These deliveries have significantly contributed to a substantial breach of the 500,000 barrel annual cap,” the report says, adding that the restrictions are “critical to ensuring [North Korea] chooses to halt these prohibited programmes and completely denuclearise”. 

The UN panel says it is also investigating North Korean coal exports, which have been banned since 2017. It is seeking information on shipping documentation and financing arrangements, as well as vessel identities, it says. 

UN reports have repeatedly accused the authoritarian state of evading restrictions on its fuel and coal trading activities. 

In April 2020, the UN Security Council called for wider use of technology, including digital shipping documents and vessel tracking tools, after finding North Korea appeared to have far exceeded its quota for commodity imports and exports during 2019. 

In an October 2021 report, the panel pointed to alleged links between Singapore-based Winson Group and illicit oil trade with the country – claims the commodity trader strongly refuted – saying illicit imports were again expected to exceed the annual cap. 

The latest report focuses heavily on North Korea’s alleged use of deceptive shipping practices, noting there has been a “significant acceleration” in its acquiring of vessels. 

The country acquired over 30 tankers and cargo ships between 2020 and 2022, it says. Typically, vessels are sold on via several intermediaries and third-party brokers, with transactions involving companies with little online footprint, disguised beneficial ownership and frequent cancellation and re-registration of flag status. 

The report also identifies several vessels that have been known to transmit false identities, in one case having as many as five alternative identifiers. 

Tel Aviv-based maritime intelligence company Windward, which is cited as a source by the UN report, says these practices means vessels “might keep operating illicitly as their former identity in [North Korea], but differently outside” the country, presenting a sanctions risk to legitimate companies. 

The UN outlines best practices and due diligence processes shipowners should undertake to avoid exposure to North Korean buyers. 

It says vessel sellers should ensure transactions occur through accredited brokers, verify the identities of shipping companies and charterers, and keep proper records of all documentation and due diligence checks carried out. 

The report gives other examples of potentially illicit activity by North Korea-flagged vessels. It cites cases of ship-to-ship transfers, prohibited under the UN sanctions regime, and says some cargo ships have been outfitted to carry oil products instead. 

The country is also accused of using “facilitators”, such as overseas shell companies, to carry out prohibited transactions.