A 60-ton Chinese vessel that was allegedly smuggling diesel at sea near Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province (North Korea), has sunk after catching fire. The cause of the fire remains unknown, although it began during the transfer of 40 tons of diesel from the ship to an oil tanker. Fortunately, no loss of life has been reported.
A 60-ton Chinese vessel in Dongjiang Port in Dandong, China, sank on
August 8 while loading diesel to be smuggled into North Korea. The tip of the vent
pipe of the sunken ship can be seen in the red circle. Image: Daily NK
A Chinese vessel that was regularly used to smuggle diesel to and from North Korea caught fire on August 8 near Dongjiang, Dandong City (Liaoning Province, opposite Sinuiju). The fire rapidly spread to the ship’s center, and the vessel sank rapidly.
No one was injured, and it was deemed fortunate that the fire did not spread to the oil tanker, which would have resulted in a massive explosion.
“When I visited the scene immediately after the incident, the ship had already sunk and an oil tanker of 40 tons was floating nearby,” a source familiar with North Korean affairs told Daily NK on August 13.
“The fire did spread to the oil tanker, but only the tires (fenders) were burnt. The crew members tried their best to extinguish the fire and succeeded in preventing an explosion.”
“If the oil tanker had exploded, it would have led to a major investigation by Chinese public security officers (police) and the diesel smuggling operation would have been exposed. Such a scandal in the midst of strong sanctions against the North would have caused a much bigger incident. So the people involved were relieved that the fire was largely kept under control,” he added.
According to the source, the Chinese authorities have been cracking down on smuggling activities with North Korea since May, including a measure adding Chinese fishing boats to the inspections list. However, larger merchants have continued to smuggle various products including diesel to and from North Korea with the help of North Korean border guards.
The North Korean border guards have been active in these practices. They often board ships to engage in dialogue with Chinese smugglers to earn money. But such activities have recently been in decline.
“Quite a few vessels belonging to the coastguard could previously be seen protecting the borders of Sinuiju, but due to diesel shortages, only one vessel has been seen around these days. Recently, even the coastguard has been asking Chinese traders for help whenever they cross paths,” a source in North Pyongan Province said.
The exact cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but the most likely reason being considered is due to waste oil. It is thought that the ignition was likely to have been induced by unrefined oil.
In reality, a vicious cycle of damage to engines and parts caused by unrefined oil has been continuing in North Korea.
“The Chinese merchants mix unrefined oil with their oil products, and the North Korean merchants add more unrefined oil before selling it. So the smuggled diesel can be sold at lower prices, but it causes damage to machine parts, which frequently malfunction as a result,” the North Pyongan Province-based source concluded.