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FT: Satellite images reveal Russia’s oil supplies to UN-sanctioned North Korea

Russia is supplying oil directly to North Korea, defying UN sanctions, in a potential ‘arms-for-oil’ trade, according to satellite images obtained by the Financial Times.
Korean tankers in Russia’s Vostochnyi port. Satellite images via FT
FT: Satellite images reveal Russia’s oil supplies to UN-sanctioned North Korea

In an “arms-for-oil”’ trade between Pyongyang and Moscow, Russia has started direct supplies of oil to North Korea in defiance of UN sanctions, as revealed through satellite images shared exclusively with the Financial Times.

Russia is increasingly leaning on military imports from authoritarian nations like Iran and North Korea in its war against Ukraine. North Korea supplies the full range of artillery munitions and some short-range ballistic missiles. The first debris of a North Korean missile was earlier documented in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv City.

FT says that despite UN restrictions, at least five North Korean tankers have been documented collecting oil products from Russia’s Vostochny Port in Russia’s Far East since 7 March, according to satellite imagery shared by the UK think-tank Royal United Services Institute with FT.

These shipments mark the first documented direct seaborne deliveries from Russia to North Korea since the imposition of strict oil transfer caps. With Russia’s approval, the UN Security Council sanctioned the country in 2017 in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons tests. The restrictions limit North Korea to only 500,000 barrels per year for both oil and petroleum products combined.

The vessels, all North Korean-flagged, were observed loading at the same berth operated by a Russian oil company before heading to the North Korean port of Chongjin where they appeared to unload. Additionally, satellite imagery confirmed the presence of vessels previously designated by the UN, “meaning they shouldn’t even be allowed entry into foreign ports, let alone involved in oil deliveries,” according to Joseph Byrne, a research fellow at Rusi, FT says.

Infomap: FT

Since last August, North Korea delivered thousands of munition containers to Russia, significantly aiding Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine. Earlier South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that North Korea has sent approximately 7,000 containers filled with munitions and military equipment to Russia since last year. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian OSINT group Frontelligence Insight used satellite images to monitor ammo shipments from North Korea to Russia, tracking logistical routes and identifying storage points.

According to FT, all five North Korean ships arrived at Vostochny Port with transponders off. The Paek Yang San 1, among them, was previously flagged by the UN in 2018 for illicit oil transfers to circumvent import limits. Rusi researchers estimated that oil deliveries from Vostochny Port could reach 125,000 barrels within weeks, a quarter of the annual quota permitted under the UN sanctions.

The revelation of an alleged oil-for-arms trade coincides with Western diplomats’ efforts to uphold the UN panel monitoring North Korea sanctions. Concerns arise over a potential Russian veto of the panel’s mandate renewal, prompting a postponement of the vote, as per FT.

According to a NYT report referring to US intelligence sources, Russia earlier allowed the release of $9 million out of $30 million in frozen North Korean assets, which North Korea would likely use to buy crude oil. A North Korean front company recently opened an account at another Russian bank, suggesting Moscow may be helping Pyongyang evade UN sanctions. The new bank account is held in South Ossetia, a Russian-occupied region of Georgia

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