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S. Korea inspects Hong Kong ship over N. Korean oil

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korean authorities boarded a Hong Kong-flagged ship and interviewed its crew members for allegedly violating U.N. sanctions by transferring oil to a North Korean vessel in October, an official said Friday.

The Lighthouse Winmore is believed to have transferred about 600 tons of refined petroleum products to the North Korean ship in international waters on Oct. 19, after leaving the South Korean port of Yeosu, the Foreign Ministry official said.

South Korean customs authorities seized and inspected the ship and questioned the crew after they returned to Yeosu on Nov. 24, according to the official, who didn’t want to be named, citing office rules. He couldn’t immediately confirm the current location of the ship and crew.

The ship was chartered by Taiwan’s Billions Bunker Group and stopped at South Korea to load up on Japanese oil products. It claimed its destination as Taiwan when leaving Yeosu on Oct. 11, the official said.

The U.S. Treasury Department last month sanctioned six North Korean shipping and trading companies and 20 of their vessels, and published photos of what it said was a North Korean vessel on Oct. 19 possibly transferring oil to evade sanctions. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Lighthouse Winmore was involved in the transactions shown in the Treasury Department images.

North Korea has come under heavy sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council as it accelerated efforts to expand its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program. In recent months, the North conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date and flight-tested intercontinental ballistic missiles three times, raising concerns it’s closer than ever toward gaining a military arsenal that can viably target the United States.

Ship-to-ship trade with North Korea at sea is prohibited under U.N. sanctions adopted Sept. 11.

The South Korean revelations of the ship inspection came hours after President Donald Trump criticized China following previous reports that Chinese ships transferred oil to North Korean vessels at sea.

Trump said on Twitter that China had been “Caught RED HANDED,” adding he was “very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea.”

“There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!” the president said, without citing the source of his information. He later told The New York Times, “It was reported this morning, and it was reported on Fox.”

China accounts for the vast majority of North Korea’s external trade and oil supplies.

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