BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China is enforcing its policy against North Korean coal imports seriously, and there have been no violations, the foreign ministry said on Friday after a report that North Korean ships had entered a Chinese port where coal imports are offloaded.
Following repeated North Korean missile tests that drew international criticism, China in February banned all imports of coal from its reclusive neighbour, cutting off its most important export product.
Reuters reported on April 11 that several North Korean cargo ships, most fully laden, were heading home after China's customs department issued an official order, on April 7, telling trading companies to return their North Korean coal cargoes.
But on Friday, the website NKNews.org reported several North Korean ships in and around Tangshan port, in northern China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked about the ships and whether China was allowing North Korean coal back in, said China was "seriously enforcing" the provisions in its announcement banning North Korean coal imports for the remainder of the year, which were in line with U.N. resolutions.
"If the ships are still at sea or outside a port, there will always be some mariners who need to be looked after for humanitarian reasons," Lu said.
"There is no such thing as any violating of this announcement or China violating its obligations to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions."
Data from Thomson Reuters Eikon confirmed that three North Korean vessels were at the Tangshan port, and others were holding offshore in the port's anchorage.
It was not clear what the laden vessels were hauling.
At port were the Ryon Hwa 3, a Tanzania flagged cargo vessel owned by a North Korean shipping company that was sanctioned last year by the United States, and the North Korean flagged Woory Star.
The Su Pung, which also flies a North Korean flag, was shown to be at a berth at the port's Jintang coal terminal, data showed.
The cargo ships Kumgangsan 2 and the Haesong 2 were offshore near the port. The Ryon Hwa 2, also holding off the port, is registered in Malta but suspected by the United Nations to be under North Korean control.
None of the vessels showed recent changes to their draft, a measure of how deep in the water they are floating which rises or falls depending on their load.
North Korea is a significant supplier of coal to China, especially of the type used for steel making, known as coking coal.
In April last year China said it would ban North Korean coal imports in order to comply with sanctions imposed by the United Nations and aimed at starving the country of funds for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
But it made exceptions for deliveries intended for "the people's wellbeing" and not connected to the nuclear or missile programmes.
March customs data this year showed that China did not import coal from North Korea.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard and John Ruwitch; Editing by Robert Birsel