The Korea Customs Service revealed this Thursday that three South Korean importers smuggled 35,038 tons of North Korean pig iron and coal, worth around 6.6 billion won, through seven shipments between April and October last year. The suspects and relevant corporate bodies are to be sent to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Daegu, on charges of infringement of the Customs Act. As the controversial allegations of smuggling North Korean coal imports have turned out to be true, the South Korean government has to make a full effort not only to minimize any consequences including secondary boycotts due to violations of U.N. sanctions, but also to recover trust of the international community.
Let us identify the causes of the issue by looking at the process of smuggling. It is seen that relevant authorities including the Korea Customs Service have responded inadequately and ineptly by failing to recognize the gravity of the implementation of U.N. sanctions. The importers in question transshipped North Korean pig iron and coal at Russian ports, which they got paid instead of commissions for brokering North Korean import deals with other countries. Such a fabrication of documents regarding the country of origin could occur anytime when objects go through customs judged solely upon relevant documents before they are entered to the country and receive inspection later. Last August, the United Nations imposed an all-out ban on transaction of North Korean coal. Nevertheless, even after then, the South Korean customs authorities failed to modify the inspection system when they came from suspicious countries including Russia that may likely allow North Korean imports to circumvent sanctions.
Since last August, the U.S. government has repeatedly informed its South Korean counterpart of North Korean coal imports, disguised as Russian, being smuggled into the country. Even with such multiple warnings, the South has failed to ban the illegal imports of the North Korean coal from entering the domestic market. In particular, since the Korean Customs Service requested an arrest warrant for the suspects this February, it has made little progress in inspection after a supplementary review of the case was ordered by the prosecution. This creates great suspicion that the South Korean authorities have put insufficient effort into responding to the issue, for fear of harming the inter-Korean relations that had just improved. Even a report by expert panelists of the United Nations Security Council was issued on June 27, pointing out that North Korean coal was smuggled on Oct. 2, and 11, through the ports in Incheon and Pohang, respectively. All things considered, accountability of the case should not be held solely by several importers.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in should hold the Korea Customs Service and any relevant agencies fully accountable, and rebuild a system to prevent recurrences. More importantly, preventive measures have to be taken to allay suspicion of the U.S. government and media. A strong determination should be made as a major stakeholder of the North Korean nuclear issue to lead the implementation of U.N. resolutions. Still, I t is a relief that the U.S. administration will not likely carry out a secondary boycott or any disadvantageous measure against the Korea South-East Power Co. and others who had the North’s coal delivered, if they turn out to have been unaware of the origin of the coal. Seoul has to reaffirm its determination to the implementation of the sanctions, which can strengthen cooperation and trust with Washington, the foremost partner for denuclearization.