On Tuesday, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo claimed USA surveillance satellites spotted Chinese vessels engaged in ship-to-ship oil transfers with North Korean ships at sea, citing government sources in Seoul.
Other US officials say there are very initial indications that North Korea is moving equipment around that could be in preparation for another satellite or missile launch.
The U.S. Treasury Department placed six North Korean shipping and trading companies and 20 of their ships on sanctions list on November 21, when it published spy satellite images taken on October 19 showing a ship named Ryesonggang 1 connected to a Chinese vessel. Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping in November to cut off North Korea's oil supply entirely, the American ambassador to the U.N., Nikki R. Haley, said at the time.
"Caught RED HANDED - very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea". That report was picked up by some US media outlets, including Fox News. Last week, the U.N. Security Council imposed new caps on trade with North Korea, including limiting oil product shipments to just 500,000 barrels a year.
"As North Korea continues to threaten global peace and security, we are steadfast in our determination to maximize economic pressure to isolate it from outside sources of trade and revenue while exposing its evasive tactics", Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at the time. Beijing also imported no iron ore, coal or lead from North Korea in November, the second full month of the latest trade sanctions imposed by United Nations.
President Donald Trump is attacking China following reports that Chinese ships improperly transferred oil to North Korean vessels at sea, saying there "will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!"
Documents seen by Reuters this month showed Washington called on the Security Council to blacklist 10 ships for circumventing sanctions by conducting ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum products to North Korean vessels or transporting North Korean coal.
"China has applied certain import bans and sanctions, but it could and should do more", he wrote in The New York Times.