By Alex Jensen
Three South Korean firms are suspected of breaking sanctions to import North Korean coal from Russia, according to Seoul's Korea Customs Office (KCS) Friday.
The companies were found to have forged documents to ship in 35,038 tons of North Korean coal and pig iron worth nearly $6 million from April to October last year, according to data cited by local news agency Yonhap.
In a further damning discovery following a months-long investigation, the KCS accused the firms of accepting the coal in return for helping to support trade involving the North and other countries.
The United States has been particularly concerned about enforcing North Korea sanctions, especially after they were strengthened by the United Nations Security Council along with unilateral measures in the wake of escalating nuclear provocations by Pyongyang last year.
As Seoul's official stance is to remain close to Washington in maintaining pressure on Pyongyang until it denuclearizes, the KCS is asking state prosecutors to take action against the three companies in question.
The firms could face additional punishment under American sanctions. South Korea will be especially keen to demonstrate its cooperation following recent reports that ships have been able to move North Korean coal into the South.
But there is also pressure on Seoul to work around sanctions to bring about inter-Korean projects, while Pyongyang has publicly criticized both South Korea and the U.S. for not showing more flexibility after it agreed to denuclearize earlier this year -- albeit without a set timeline.