The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) has tightened controls against vessels entering Japanese ports by checking their histories of port calls dating back to February 2016, when the Japanese government decided to impose unilateral sanctions on North Korea, the Sankei Shimbun learned from a government source on Nov. 26. The move followed the entry of a Hong Kong-flagged freighter suspected of having made a port call in North Korea into Chiba Port earlier this month. The stricter measure is aimed at increasing the effectiveness of the sanctions and preventing goods from reaching North Korea from third countries via Japan.
Japan imposed an entry ban on third-party ships that called at North Korean ports based on the Act on Special Measures concerning Prohibition of Entry of Specified Ships into Ports after it imposed its own sanctions on North Korea in February 2016. The ban was later extended to all ships including those of Japanese registry. The JCG had applied the Law for the Security of Ships and of Port Facilities, which requires all ships coming from foreign ports to provide the JCG with information on the last 10 port calls 24 hours before arrival, in response to a cabinet decision to impose unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.
But a crew member from the Hong Kong-registered cargo ship that entered Chiba Port told the Chiba Prefectural Police that the ship called at a North Korean port in January and February and the visits were not included in its list of the latest 10 port stops.
That prompted the JCG to examine ways to determine port visits that have been made by the approximately 53,000 incoming foreign vessels (in 2016) since February 2016. The JCG decided to thoroughly check port visits such as by requiring reports through shipping agents, which carry out procedures necessary for port visits and keep ships’ histories of port calls.
Loophole in sanctions allowed suspicious ship’s entry
Having allowed the entry and exit of the cargo ship suspected of having stopped in North Korea “violates” (as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga says) Japan’s unilateral sanctions. Also, letting an illegal act go unpunished could be a hole in the international net encircling North Korea. The international community bans not only North Korea-registered ships but also those that made port calls in North Korea from entering ports because of the fact that shipping plays a major role in North Korea’s acquisition of foreign currency.
In North Korea, which needs a large amount of foreign currency as funding for nuclear and ballistic missile development and as governing funds to maintain the regime, shipping is vital in exporting domestically manufactured weapons and resources and importing equipment for [nuclear and ballistic missile] development.
From these perspectives, Japan has played a leading role with the U.S. every time the UN Security Council adopts a resolution to impose tougher sanctions [on the North]. But in actual surveillance and crackdowns on North Korea’s international maritime activities, Japan is accused by the UN panel of experts on North Korea sanctions and other experts of a lack of effort due partly to the absence of laws that serve as a basis for implementing such activities.
When Panamanian authorities seized a North Korean cargo ship carrying a huge number of weapons including MiG-21 fighter jets in July 2013, a Japanese man emerged as the owner of a Hong Kong-based company closely related to the operations of the owner of the ship, Ocean Maritime Management (headquartered in Pyongyang). But the Japanese government has not held the man criminally liable or even imposed a penalty on him such as confiscation of his passport.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga said during a press conference that overlooking the ship’s entry and exit at Chiba Port “is absolutely unforgivable in the face of [Japan’s] efforts to increase pressure on North Korea together with the international community.” The government sees the issue as problematic because Japan’s seriousness in monitoring and cracking down on North Korean maritime trade could be called into question despite its leading role in implementing sanctions on North Korea.
North Korea has used Japan, where it has the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, as a major espionage hub. So far, the association and its members have been involved in exporting chemical substances used for generating the chemical weapon sarin and equipment and steel materials for nuclear and missile development from Japan. A former activist of the association says Japan has been North Korea’s “distribution warehouse.”
The cargo ship under suspicion entered Chiba Port on Nov. 3. North Korea was not included in the list of 10 port calls provided by the ship. So the Chiba Coast Guard Office allowed the ship to enter. A member of the Chiba Prefectural Police’s Water Police Unit learned that the ship might have stopped in North Korea. But the officer did not recognize that as a violation of the law, causing delay in sharing the information. The ship left the Japanese port on Nov. 13 as scheduled and the Chiba Prefectural Police notified the JCG the next day, Nov. 14. A crew member from the ship reportedly said during voluntary questioning by the prefectural police that “the ship called at the North Korean port of Rajin once each in January and February, loaded tens of thousands of tons of coal each time for transport to China.”
The fact that the ship entered a berth owned by a private company operating in Chiba Port is believed to be one of the reasons why the ship’s entrance and exit was overlooked, for the area is outside the JCG’s jurisdiction. The prefectural police learned the ship may have called at a North Korean port when it inspected ships that arrived at private berths, which are outside the JCG’s reach. A senior official of the National Police Agency (NPA) says, “We candidly regret that we didn’t take enough measures to check and will develop thorough measures.”
Enhancing the laws and organizations that increase the effectiveness of surveillance and crackdowns on North Korea’s international maritime activities is a pressing issue as North Korea appears to be close to completing the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. (Abridged)