Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
At the same time, recent figures from China state that its exports of refined fuel products to North Korea continues to remain well below the ceiling mandated by UN sanctions. Asia Press reports a slight increase of diesel prices in Yanggang and North Hamgyong provinces, but it’s a fairly minor one and the data by NK Pro and Daily NK still represents more data points. So what’s a plausible explanation here?
My best guess is that it’s a combination of increased smuggling, perhaps aided by China’s declining vigilance in enforcing sanctions and restrictions against illicit trade across the border. Gas prices shot up last spring when China decided to drastically cut sales of fuel products to North Korea, citing financial reasons (that North Korea wouldn’t be able to pay), but the decision was very likely influenced by political considerations as well. Now with the multitude of summits between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping, and Kim and Trump, China’s willingness to enforce sanctions with the same vigor as it did through the second half of 2017 and the first half of 2018 has likely waned, impacting matters like fuel prices as well. It also seems plausible that fairly small changes in supply could change prices quite drastically, since North Korea already consumes a relatively small amount of gasoline and diesel on the whole.
Another possibility is that Chinese flows of unrefined oil through the pipeline in northwestern North Korea, through Dandong and Sinuiju, have increased. These aren’t monitored in the same way as Chinese sales of refined fuel to North Korea, and as far as I know, could be increased without the international community easily noticing. These oil flows also aren’t part of regular trade between the countries, and should be regarded more as Chinese financial support to North Korea.
My best bet would be on a combination of these two factors, but there’s obviously much we don’t know about the development.
Update 2018-07-15: NK News reports some US government data seeming to hint at what’s been going on. At least 89 hip-to-ship transfers occurred between January and May, in violation of UNSC sanctions:
North Korea likely conducted at least 89 ship-to-ship transfers to illicitly obtain refined petroleum products between January 1 and May 30, U.S. data provided to the United Nations and seen by NK News on Friday claims.
Pyongyang may have illegally imported up to 1,367,628 barrels of refined petroleum as a result of the transfers, upper-end estimates suggested, over double the 500,000 barrels authorized for export to North Korea each year by current UN sanctions.
Consequently, the U.S. recommended that the UN 1718 sanctions committee issue a “public note verbale to all UN Member States to inform them that the DPRK has breached the UNSCR 2397 OP5 refined petroleum product quota for 2018,” and that all countries should “order an immediate halt to all transfers of refined petroleum products to the DPRK.”
Since the May 30 data cut-off, the Japanese government has revealed details surrounding three extra cases of North Korean vessels caught conducting likely ship-to-ship transfers, with two on June 21 and June 22, and one on June 29.
N. Korea likely conducted 89 illicit ship-to-ship transfers in 2018: U.S. data