Exclusive-China harbors ship tied to North Korea-Russia arms transfers, satellite images show

Ship identified by RUSI as the North Korean registered cargo vessel Angara docked in China
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By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China is providing moorage for a U.S.-sanctioned Russian cargo ship implicated in North Korean arms transfers to Russia, according to satellite images obtained by Reuters, as U.S. concerns grow over Beijing's support for Moscow's war in Ukraine.

Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank said the Russian vessel Angara, which since August 2023 has moved to Russian ports thousands of containers believed to contain North Korean munitions, has been anchored at a Chinese shipyard in eastern Zhejiang province since February.

The ship's presence at the Chinese port underscores the challenges facing the United States and its allies as they try to choke off military and economic support for Russia.

With Ukraine under a renewed Russian assault and running short of ammunition, U.S. officials have issued increasingly stark warnings about what they say is China's help rebuilding Russia's military after its early setbacks in the Ukraine war.

That support is expected to top the agenda this week as Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Beijing.

The State Department's second ranked diplomat, Kurt Campbell, said this month that Washington would not "sit by" if Beijing increased its backing for Moscow.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it was aware of "credible, open-source reports" that the Angara is currently moored in a Chinese port and had raised the issue with Chinese authorities.

"We call on all member states to fulfill their obligations under UNSCR 2397," the official said, referring to a United Nations resolution restricting trade with North Korea and requiring U.N. states to de-register any vessels involved in illicit activities.

"When Secretary Blinken meets with his PRC counterparts this week, he will address a range of concerns, including Russia’s war against Ukraine and Russia-DPRK ties," the spokesperson said, referring to China and North Korea by the initials of their official names.

Satellite images RUSI obtained in recent months from companies including San Francisco-based Earth imaging firm Planet Labs PBC showed the Angara docked at Zhoushan Xinya Shipyard in Zhejiang, which on its website says it is China's largest private ship repair company.

The ship was identified by its unique automatic identification system (AIS) transponder that had been briefly turned on, likely for safety reasons, while navigating a busy stretch of the Korea Strait en route to China.

RUSI said that before arriving in China on Feb. 9, seemingly for repairs or maintenance, the Angara had been docked in January at North Korean and Russian ports with its transponder turned off. It again stopped transmitting shortly after arriving in China.


The ship, sanctioned by the U.S. in May 2022, had conducted at least 11 deliveries between the North Korean port of Rajin and Russian ports from August 2023, according to RUSI, which has been tracking its movements as part of a project to use open source data to monitor North Korea's sanctions evasion networks.

China's embassy in Washington said it was not aware of the details related to the Angara, but that China "always opposes unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction that have no basis in international law or mandate from the Security Council."

China's foreign ministry also said it had no information about the matter.

The U.S. and dozens of other countries said earlier this year that the North Korean weapons transfers to Russia "flagrantly" violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Joseph Byrne, a research fellow with RUSI, said China's government should know that the U.S.-sanctioned vessel was docked at its shipyard.

"If it lets (the Angara) sail out of port uninspected and newly repaired, then it shows China likely won't take any action on these Russian vessels," Byrne said.

Washington has repeatedly asked China not to aid Moscow's war effort since Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which came just weeks after Russia and China declared a "no limits partnership."

Blinken last week criticized Chinese support for Russia's defense industry, saying Beijing was currently the primary contributor to Moscow's war in Ukraine though its provision of critical components for weaponry.

Russia's foreign ministry, and Zhoushan Xinya Shipyard did not respond to requests for comment on the Angara.

The company's website says its clients come from around Asia, Europe and the U.S. and that it has "strategic cooperation" with global shipping companies, including Maersk and Taiwan's Evergreen Marine Corp, as well as partnerships with European technology companies.

Both Russia and North Korea have repeatedly dismissed criticism over the alleged weapons deliveries. Moscow says it will develop ties with whatever countries it wants and that its cooperation with Pyongyang does not contravene international agreements.

Campbell told an event in Washington on Monday that the growing Chinese and North Korean partnership with Russia was "antithetical" to U.S. security interests in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski, Guy Faulconbridge and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Don Durfee and Daniel Wallis)