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  • By Bernadette H. Carreon

Hitting where it hurts: Pacific waters off-limits to North Korean vessels

Koror— President Donald Trump has ordered new economic sanctions against any financial institutions or other companies doing business with North Korea, a move designed to slow down Kim Jong-un’s saber rattling. Taking its turn, China has announced a ban on petroleum products to the rogue nation, which has recently launched ballistic missile tests.

U.S. officials acknowledged that sanctions may deter Kim’s campaign to threaten the United States with a nuclear attack. But with the mounting economic pressure from the international community, the hermit nation is likely to get further isolated and be forced to rely on one of its most lucrative industries — fisheries.

According to a UPI report, Pyongyang has been ramping up its harvest and production and increasingly directing more of its fisheries toward domestic consumption. In fact, the report indicated, North Korea is converting its weapons production plants into fishing boat operation facilities.

And that’s where Pacific nations saw opportunity to impose their own economic pressure on Pyongyang. During the recently concluded Pacific Island Forum, state leaders voted to deregister any North Korean trade or fishing vessels currently flagged on Pacific nation shipping registries. The forum agreed to perform an audit of every ship registered in the Pacific to search for any links to North Korea.

In a December 2015 article, Japan's reported that North Koreans have been able to register privately owned fishing ships as military vessels since 1995. Some ships, according to the report, were estimated to bring in $500,000 annually.

North Korea ships have been reportedly masking its “illegal” movements through the seas by using flags of convenience, registering North Korean owned ships or vessels under Pacific nations.

Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, chair of the Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting, told a press conference on Sept. 8 there was a unanimous commitment from the Pacific leaders to ensure that relevant UN Security Council Resolutions are being implemented against North Korea.

“New Zealand and Australia will assist other member states with intelligence gathering to identify illegally flagged DPRK vessels,” he said. “It’s been reported that some of the ships are fishing illegally under the flags of these countries without their knowledge.”

New Zealand Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee said his country looked forward to working with Pacific countries in identifying and de-registering illegally flagged North Korean vessels.

“Options for New Zealand support, working alongside Australia, include the sharing of intelligence and also providing maritime and legal expertise on the operation of shipping registries,” Brownlee said. “By working together, the Pacific region can do its bit to help ensure that United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea are fully and effectively enforced.”

Some Pacific nations are not equipped to determine whether North Korea vessels are sneaking into the region.

However in Fiji, vessels with links to North Korea are being investigated. It’s reported that North Korean-linked ships have adopted Fiji’s flag without formally registering. This is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Fiji authorities.

In 2016, Philippine authorities seized and searched a North Korean vessel. The ship was registered as belonging to Tuvalu, the report stated. In addition to the fraudulent use of flags, Pacific governments were concerned North Korean vessels could be quietly registering in nations that allow international ships to use their flags.

In 2013, a 3,743-ton North Korean-owned ocean freighter registered in Tuvalu, a flag of convenience was also seized in Australia with a cargo of heroin.

“We really don’t know whether some Korean boats are flying our flags. I do not have any information about this,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai was quoted as saying about the matter.

The move to deregister was accompanied by the unanimous condemnation from the Pacific leaders of North Korea’s nuclear threats to the United States territory of Guam.

In a communique issued at the end of a week-long gathering in Apia on Sept. 8, the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum said that North Korea’s threat to fire missiles on Guam “constitutes a threat to the wider Pacific Islands region.”

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr., in his Sept 20 remarks before the UN General Assembly, said a threat to Guam is also a threat to Palau. “Palau therefore supports all efforts and UN Resolutions to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. The threat to the innocent people of Guam is a threat to us and the entire region,” he said.

Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine in a statement during her visit to Washington D.C. said North Korea’s threat to Guam “makes nuclear threats a much more immediate security issue for RMI – and the world.”

“Obviously RMI, from its own experience, doesn't want anyone to ever use nuclear weapons – but the big question is, how does the world effectively eliminate this threat – it's actually pretty complicated,” said the president.

Pacific Forum members include Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Guam, as a U.S. territory, is not included. Pacific Note

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