Two ships side by side (Japanese Ministry of Defense/AP Images)
The U.S. and its allies and partners are tracking suspect ship-to-ship transfers of goods believed to help North Korea evade U.N. sanctions. (Japanese Ministry of Defense/AP Images)

The U.S. and its allies are stopping North Korea’s desperate, illegal smuggling practices on the high seas.

After the U.S. and the United Nations Security Council passed strict sanctions that ban North Korea’s exports of coal, the regime of Kim Jong Un has seen its coal exports plummet to nearly zero, from more than $100 million in coal revenues per month in early 2017, according to government figures.

North Korea lost an estimated $1.2 billion in coal exports in 2017, a year when coal prices were generally increasing. That is money that would have continued to fund its illegal and dangerous nuclear and missile programs.

Exports of North Korea’s other commodities — including textiles, fish and iron ore — also have seen precipitous drops as a result of 2017 sanctions.

Partial view of ship on the water with name painted over (Japanese Ministry of Defense/AP Images)
North Korea is suspected of painting over the names of ships to attempt to avoid U.N. sanctions. (Japanese Ministry of Defense/AP Images)

Feeling the sting, North Korea has increasingly turned to desperate and illegal measures to generate revenue. But the U.S. and allies also are making sure North Korea doesn’t cheat.

In February 2018, for example, a Japanese surveillance plane caught a North Korean tanker making a nighttime rendezvous with another ship positioned alongside it, moving cargo between the two. This illegal “ship-to-ship” transfer is prohibited under United Nations sanctions.

Intelligence services are monitoring suspected sanctions-evading activity, and South Korea has taken steps — required by U.N. Security Council resolutions — to impound vessels suspected of illegal activity with the DPRK. South Korea denied departure to three vessels in November and December 2017 and January 2018.

In fact, sanctions have limited severely North Korea’s imports of oil and petroleum products. In December 2017, U.N. sanctions reduced the country’s ability to import petroleum products by nearly 90 percent as compared to the year before.

“We are putting companies and countries across the world on notice that this administration views compliance with U.S. and U.N. sanctions as a national security imperative,” U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin has said. “Those who trade with North Korea do so at their own peril.”

The campaign to maximize pressure on North Korea is working toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, according to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. “We’re going to use every tool at our disposal, including working with our allies and through the U.N., to increase the pressure until North Korea reverses course,” Haley said. “The world will not accept a nuclear North Korea.”