N.Korea exported illicit sand to China in 'unprecedented' operation, group says

By Josh Smith

SEOUL, March 4 (Reuters) - For several months last year, a steady stream of ships was observed dredging sand in a North Korean bay then transporting loads of it to China, a Washington-based think-tank said on Wednesday.

The extraction of sand from North Korea to China would violate a 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits North Korea from "supplying, selling, or transferring sand", the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) said in a report.

The group's researchers tracked the dredging and transport of the sand through commercial satellite imagery and shipping databases.

"Between March and August 2019, C4ADS observed a large fleet of vessels originating from Chinese waters travelling to North Korea to dredge and transport sand from Haeju Bay," the report's authors wrote, describing unusual ship traffic in a bay less than 30 km (18.6 miles) from neighbouring South Korea.

China has called for sanctions to be eased on North Korea, but also says it fully enforces the sanctions imposed with its assent by the U.N. Security Council.

The United Nations has found that North Korea has repeatedly circumvented restrictions on trade of things like coal and oil, often by conducting ship-to-ship transfers at sea.

But the unprecedented scale and coordination of the dredging operation "showcases the boldness and impunity with which sanctions evasion networks operate, even under close scrutiny" C4ADS said in its report.

In 2019, Haeju Bay saw at least 1,563 visits by ships, according to Automatic Identification System (AIS) data reviewed by C4ADS. That compares with only 418 visits in the previous two years combined.

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The AIS data showed many of the ships returning to ports on the Chinese coast.

Some of the ships observed in satellite imagery appeared to be operating in convoys or other formations, suggesting they were coordinating their movements.

"The activity in Haeju demonstrates scale, and a level of sophistication unlike other known cases of North Korean sanctions evasion at sea," the group said.

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Analysts are working on methods to estimate the amount of sand that was exported, and how much that may have been worth to North Korea, one of the report's authors, Lauren Sung, told Reuters.

But the rising value of sand suggests that the operation was lucrative for cash-strapped North Korea.

"As the price of sand has risen rapidly in recent years, so has the practice of both licit and illicit sand excavation and trade around the world," the group said. (Reporting by Josh Smith Editing by Robert Birsel)

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