US pushes back at Russia’s protest over South Korean sanctions

WASHINGTON — The United States is welcoming South Korean sanctions imposed on Russian vessels suspected of transporting weapons from North Korea, despite Russian protests. 

“We applaud the recent actions taken by the ROK to disrupt and expose arms transfers between the DPRK and Russia – including the sanctions … on two Russian vessels involved in arms transfers to Russia,” a State Department spokesperson said.

“It is important for the international community to send a strong, unified message that the DPRK must halt its irresponsible behavior, abide by its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions, and engage in serious and sustained diplomacy,” the spokesperson said Friday via email to the VOA Korean Service.

South Korea on April 2 unilaterally sanctioned two Russian vessels involved in delivering military supplies from North Korea to Russia.  

The next day at a press briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called Seoul’s move “an unfriendly step” that “leads only to escalation of tensions” and “will affect South Korea-Russia relations in a negative way.” 

She said Moscow would respond to the sanctions but did not specify how. 

On Friday, Russia said it had summoned South Korea’s ambassador.  

The South Korean sanctions followed Russia’s veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the annual extension of the U.N. experts panel that monitors sanctions on North Korea. The panel’s mandate ends at the end of April.

The ties between Pyongyang and Moscow have been growing since a summit in September. Since then, North Korea has been providing munitions that Russia needs to fight its war in Ukraine.

“The ROK government getting involved in applying sanctions, seizures, and other active counterproliferation authorities and capabilities against the North is a huge step forward in joint cooperation to counter, protect and contain the DPRK regime’s weapons exports,” said David Asher, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.   

Asher worked on disrupting North Korea’s illicit financial, trading and weapons of mass destruction networks under the George W. Bush administration.

In an email to VOA on Monday, Asher added, “I fully expect ROK-U.S.-Japan cooperation to expand in counterproliferation, including the identification and targeting of weapons supply networks using intelligence operations, law enforcement, and sanctions.”

A day after announcing the sanctions, Seoul said it had seized a vessel that was suspected of violating U.N. sanctions on North Korea. South Korea said it was investigating the DEYI, a cargo ship that was en route to Russia from North Korea via China, after seizing it in waters off the South Korean port city of Yeosu.

“This reinforces that countries can implement U.N. sanctions, on their own, as they have responsibility to do so,” especially after Russia blocked the U.N. experts panel’s mandate, said Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Ruggiero has over 19 years working on financial sanctions and proliferation issues, including ones involving North Korea.

There is a broad international and domestic set of legal authorities that countries like South Korea could rely on to go after illicit exports and maritime activities by North Korea, but it is a matter of “whether countries are willing to stop” vessels making illegal actions, Ruggiero said during a telephone interview on Monday. 

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed in 2017 authorizes member states to seize, inspect, freeze and impound vessels in their territorial waters found to be conducting illicit activities with Pyongyang and carrying banned goods from North Korea.  

A State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that the U.S. is “coordinating closely with the ROK in its investigation of this ship in connection with U.N. sanctions violations.”

“Despite Russia’s veto of the 1718 Committee Panel of Experts mandate in order to bury reporting on its violation of U.S. Security Council resolutions, U.N. sanctions on the DPRK remain in place, and all U.N. member states are still required to implement them,” the spokesperson said.

Nate Evans, the spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., said Monday that U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield will travel to South Korea and Japan next week to discuss ways to monitor international sanctions on North Korea.

South Korea estimated in March that North Korea has shipped about 7,000 containers full of munitions to Russia since last year. The U.S. assessed the same month the number of containers to be 10,000.

Joshua Stanton, an attorney based in Washington who helped draft the Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act in 2016, told VOA on Monday via email that Seoul could seize ships carrying weapons from North Korea to Russia if certain criteria are met. 

Seoul could do so “if South Korea has reasonable cause to believe that the vessel is engaged in sanctions evasion, and if one of the following conditions is also met: the [vessel’s] flag state consents, the vessel is stateless, or the ship enters a South Korean port.”

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