Russia and China are blocking a U.S. effort at the United Nations to halt all deliveries of refined oil products to North Korea amid charges that Pyongyang is smuggling fuel into the country, diplomats say.
The move on July 19 by Russia and China came after Washington last week asked a UN Security Council sanctions committee to ban further shipments on the grounds that fuel smuggling has enabled North Korea to already exceed a UN-imposed cap on its fuel imports for the year.
Under a UN sanctions resolution adopted last year, crude oil supplies to North Korea were limited to 4 million barrels per year, with a ceiling of 500,000 barrels put on refined oil products.
The cutoff of fuel has been primarily enforced by China, which supplies North Korea with most of its energy needs, but also Russia, which has delivered some oil to Pyongyang.
The United States last week sent a report to the sanctions committee saying that North Korea had secured at least 759,793 barrels of oil products through ship-to-ship transfers at sea, according to documents seen by AP and AFP.
The smuggling typically involves North Korean tankers siphoning clandestine cargoes of oil in international waters from ships that often switch off their satellite tracking system to prevent any monitoring of their activities.
Media reported that the U.S. documents cite 89 instances in the first half of the year in which North Korean tankers likely delivered refined products "illicitly procured" by such transfers at sea.
The documents say that even if each tanker delivered only one-third of its listed capacity, the total volume Pyongyang obtained through smuggling would be above its 500,000-barrel quota for the year.
But if each tanker were fully loaded with fuel, the amount smuggled would be triple its quota, the U.S. documents said.
In light of North Korea's apparent success at smuggling fuel, the United States argues in its report that any further scheduled deliveries of fuel by China and Russia should "immediately stop."
In putting a hold on the U.S. request that will last for at least six months, China and Russia both demanded more information from the United States.
"Russia is closely examining this request and is seeking additional information on every single case of 'illegal' transfer of petroleum to the DPRK claimed by the U.S.," Russia's UN mission said in an e-mail to council members.
"We also request the U.S. side to provide additional factual information to facilitate all states to study and make judgment," the Chinese mission said.
The council last year adopted a series of three increasingly tough sanctions resolutions targeting North Korea's economy in response to Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test and a series of ballistic-missile launches.
The sanctions banned North Korea's exports of raw commodities and severely restricted its supplies of oil, which are vital to sustaining the country's military program.
The skirmish over fuel smuggling comes ahead of a July 20 meeting at which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to brief the UN council on Washington's drive to persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear and missile programs.
Diplomats expect Pompeo to push the council to keep strictly enforcing the UN sanctions.