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, following reports in September that North Korean ships were sailing directly from Russia to their homeland.
The revelation comes just days after US President Donald Trump accused China of being caught “red-handed” selling oil to North Korea.
“The Russian vessels made transfers at sea to the North Koreans,” the first security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
The source said the transfers of oil or oil products took place on several occasions and were a breach of sanctions.
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.
In comments carried by Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the country was observing sanctions against North Korea.
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, saying it was classified.
The Russian Customs Service 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”.
North Korea relies on imported fuel to keep its struggling economy functioning.
It also requires oil for its intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear program that the United States says threatens the peace in Asia.
“The vessels are smuggling Russian fuel from Russian Far Eastern ports to North Korea,” the first security source said.
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.