U.N. approves release of ships after promise not to repeat oil transfers to North

By Hyonhee Shin

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - The United Nations has approved the release of two ships impounded by South Korea on suspicion of transferring oil to North Korea as there was no deliberate breach of sanctions, Seoul's foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

South Korea seized four vessels to check whether they violated U.N. sanctions by making illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil or coal products to North Korean ships.

A U.N. panel monitoring the enforcement of sanctions approved the release of the Hong Kong-flagged Lighthouse Winmore and the South Korean P-Pioneer based on the result of a South Korean investigation that found they had not intended to breach sanctions, South Korean officials said.

"There was evidence of ship-to-ship transfers but we concluded that it was not deliberate," a senior official at South Korea's foreign ministry told Reuters.

The ships, detained at South Korean ports, were allowed to leave as of Tuesday, the official said.

The shipping companies had promised to keep tracking devices on ships at all times and provide records as necessary, the official said.

Under a 2017 U.N. resolution, ships are freed if they have made "adequate arrangements" to prevent a future violation of sanctions six months after they were seized.

The other two vessels, formerly Panama-flagged KOTI and Talent Ace, remain detained as their activities were considered deliberate, the official said.

"We're seeking to demolish the two ships as scrap metal," he said.

The United Nations last year blacklisted KOTI Corp, which operates the namesake ship, as part of efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes by squeezing essential fuel supplies.

The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions in 2017 limiting the North's access to refined petroleum products and crude oil while sharply slashing its exports of coal, iron and other minerals, which are key sources of foreign currency.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Nick Macfie)