China on Friday denied reports it has been illicitly selling oil products to North Korea, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was not happy that Beijing allowed oil to reach the isolated nation.
Trump said on Twitter on Thursday that China had been “caught” allowing oil into North Korea and that would prevent “a friendly solution” to the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
“I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war,” Trump said in a separate interview with The New York Times.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters she had noted recent media reports including suggestions a Chinese vessel was suspected of transporting oil to a North Korean vessel on Oct. 19.
“The Chinese side has conducted immediate investigation. In reality, the ship in question has, since August, not docked at a Chinese port and there is no record of it entering or leaving a Chinese port,” Hua said.
She said she was not aware if the vessel had docked at the port in other countries but the relevant media reports “did not accord with facts”.
“China has always implemented UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to North Korea in their entirety and fulfils its international obligations.
“We never allow Chinese companies and citizens to violate the resolutions.
“If, through investigation, it’s confirmed there are violations of the UN Security Council resolutions, China will deal with them seriously in accordance with laws and regulations,” Hua said.
In the New York Times interview, Trump explicitly tied his administration’s trade policy with China to its perceived cooperation in resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis.
“When I campaigned, I was very tough on China in terms of trade. They made 2016, we had a trade deficit with China of 350 billion dollars, minimum.
“That doesn’t include the theft of intellectual property, O.K., which is another 300 billion dollars,” Trump said, according to a transcript of the interview.
“If they’re helping me with North Korea, I can look at trade a little bit differently, at least for a period of time.
“That’s what I’ve been doing. But when oil is going in, I‘m not happy about that,” the U.S. President was quoted as saying.
An official of the State Department said the U.S. government was aware of vessels engaged in such activity involving refined petroleum and coal.
“We have evidence that some of the vessels engaged in these activities are owned by companies in several countries, including China,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. says the full cooperation of China, North Korea’s neighbor and main trading partner, is vital to the success of efforts to rein in North Korea, while warning that all options are on the table, including military ones, in dealing with it.
China has repeatedly said it is fully enforcing all resolutions against North Korea, despite suspicion in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo that loopholes still exist.
South Korea said on Friday it had seized a Hong Kong-flagged ship suspected of transferring oil to North Korea in defiance of the sanctions.
A senior South Korean foreign ministry official said the ship, the Lighthouse Winmore, was seized when it arrived at a South Korean port in late November.
“It’s unclear how much oil the ship had transferred to North Korea for how long and on how many occasions, but it clearly showed North Korea is engaged in evading the sanctions,” the official told Reuters.
South Korea said it had obtained intelligence showing the Hong Kong-flagged Lighthouse Winmore transferring as much as 600 tonnes of refined petroleum products to a North Korea-flagged ship, the Sam Jong II, on Oct. 19 in international waters between China and the Korean peninsula.
Employees at the office of Lighthouse Ship Management, the ship’s registered manager, in the Chinese port city of Guangzhou, declined to comment and said they had no knowledge of the situation.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said she did not have any information about the matter.
Both ships were among 10 vessels that the U.S. had proposed that the UN Security Council should blacklist for transporting banned items from North Korea, documents seen by Reuters this month showed.
China and Russia subsequently asked for more time to consider the U.S. proposal.
Ship tracking data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows that the Lighthouse Winmore has mainly been doing supply runs between China and Taiwan since August.
Prior to that, it was active between India and the United Arab Emirates.
In October, when it allegedly transferred petroleum products to a North Korean ship in international waters, the Lighthouse Winmore had its tracking transponder switched off.