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Roh Suk-hwan, deputy commissioner of the Korea Customs Service, speaks in Daejeon, South Korea, on Aug. 10, 2018.

Lee Jin-wook/The Associated Press

More than 33,000 tons of North Korean coal was illegally imported to South Korea last year in violation of United Nations and other sanctions, the South Korean government said Friday.

A government customs agency, the Korea Customs Service, asked prosecutors to indict the heads of three South Korean companies that transport coal. It said the companies imported the North Korean coal, totaling $5.8 million in value, between April and October of last year, and it accused them of falsifying documents to indicate that the coal was of Russian origin.

The owners of 14 ships involved in transporting the coal from North Korea to ports in the Russian Far East, and from there to South Korea, could also face penalties under U.N. sanctions, South Korean officials said. It was unclear whether the owners of the ships that loaded the coal in Russia knew it was from North Korea.

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Last August, the U.N. Security Council barred all member nations from importing North Korean coal, iron ore and other significant sources of hard currency for the isolated regime. Separately, South Korea has banned trade with North Korea since the North was accused of sinking a South Korean Navy ship in a torpedo attack in 2010.

The Security Council adopted another resolution in December requiring U.N. member states to seize, inspect and impound any vessel in their ports and territorial waters if they have “reasonable grounds to believe” it was involved in illegally transporting prohibited commodities. It also barred North Korea from importing more than a half-million barrels of refined oil each year.

The U.N. recently raised concerns that North Korea is still exploiting gaps in sanctions enforcement by securing refined oil through illegal ship-to-ship transfers at sea and by smuggling its coal abroad with its origins disguised.

North Korea’s sanctions evasion is assisted by traders who covet the high margins involved in the illicit trade, South Korean customs officials said Friday.

They said that last July, the North Korean ship Rung Ra 2 carried 4,580 tons of coal from the North’s Daean port to Kholmsk, a port town on the Russian island of Sakhalin. In October, the shipment, by then disguised as Russian coal, was transferred to Donghae, a port on South Korea’s east coast, by the Belize-flagged ship Jin Long, according to South Korean investigators.

The officials identified five other shipments of coal from North Korea that they said entered South Korea in a similar way between April and October of last year. They also said that more than 2,000 tons of pig iron from North Korea was imported to South Korea through Vladivostok, a Russian port near the Chinese and North Korean borders.

The North Korean coal has already been distributed to domestic consumers in South Korea like Korea South-East Power, a state-owned power company. Customs officials said they had found no evidence that the power company was aware it was using banned coal from North Korea.

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Coal had been one of North Korea’s biggest exports until the U.N. imposed the ban in response to its nuclear weapons development.

The South Korean findings are the latest evidence that North Korea has been using Russian ports to sidestep international sanctions, even as the Trump administration is urging all nations to maintain economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea.

North Korea “has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea during 2018,” according to a confidential U.N. report seen by Reuters last week.

On Thursday, the North’s Foreign Ministry said the country remained committed to the agreement between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump to build trust and work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But it accused U.S. officials of “going against the intention of President Trump” and trying to sabotage the summit deal by demanding that the North denuclearize first.

“Some high-level officials within the U.S. administration are making baseless allegations against us and making desperate attempts at intensifying the international sanctions and pressure,” the ministry said in a statement.

South Korea’s announcement came days before a planned meeting Monday between South and North Korean officials to discuss a third summit between their leaders.

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The South’s progressive government is eager to build better ties with North Korea, but it is also under pressure to enforce international sanctions. Last year, it impounded two ships accused of helping North Korea secure refined oil through ship-to-ship transfers at sea. In January, it also detained a ship allegedly involved in the illegal transport of North Korean coal.

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