A North Korean-flagged oil tanker appears to have loaded oil at the Libyan rebel held Es Sider oil terminal southwest of Benghazi and escaped Libyan Navy pursuit. Libya’s Parliament voted earlier in the day to remove Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from office for failure to stop rebels holding the eastern coast of Libya from exporting the nation’s oil. The price of oil on world markets was not immediately affected, but the action dramatically raises the risk of retaliation by North Korea and Libyan rebel allies against oil tankers and infrastructure in the region. Jim Garrow of the Bithune Institute of China said the event was an intentional escalation by North Korea’s “narcissistic” leader Kim Jong-un, who believes “God has placed him on the planet to parry the thrust of the United States.”
Libya’s government has tried to end a wave of protests at oil ports and fields across the vast desert state that have slashed oil output to 230,000 barrels per day (bpd), from 1.4 million bpd in July of last year. Despite massive investment in agriculture and non-petroleum-related industry by the former Muammar al Qadhafi regime, 60% of Libya’s gross domestic product (GDP) had been derived from oil since the early 1970s. Lacking in both basic infrastructure and water resources, oil is Libya’s economic lifeline.
Libyan rebels commanded by the militia the government was paying to protect petroleum facilities, defected and seized three major Libyan ports in August to enforce demands for Eastern Libya autonomy. The government has struggled to control the eastern militias since the 2011 rebellion that led to the overthrow of the al Qadhafi regime. The militias that were heavily armed by NATO and captured al Qadhafi stockpiles of sophisticated weapons have refused to disarm.
On March 8th, a local television station on controlled by the rebels in Benghazi showed pro-autonomy rebels with the tanker in the background slaughtering a camel on to celebrate their first oil shipment. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan appeared later on state television to warn the ship’s crew, “The tanker will be bombed if it doesn’t follow orders when leaving (the port). This will be an environmental disaster.” Zeidan said loading oil on the tanker was a criminal act and ordered the arrest of the tanker’s crew.
Abb-Rabbo Albarassi, who identifies himself as the eastern movement’s Prime Minister, said Zeidan’s government had failed to meet its demands to share oil wealth, investigate oil corruption and grant the regional autonomy. “We tried to reach a deal with the government, but they and parliament … were too busy with themselves and didn’t even discuss our demands” he told the televised ceremony.”
The Libyan navy fired on a Maltese-flagged tanker in January which it said was trying to load oil in Es Sider. The North Korean-flagged Morning Glory, which was previously flagged in Liberia, had been circling off the Libyan coast for days before docking on March 4th, after repeated government warnings to turn away.
It is extremely unusual for an oil tanker in the Mediterranean to be flagged by North Korea. The ship had been owned until a couple of weeks ago by a Saudi company as the Gulf Glory. But Jim Garrow believes “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un is always looking to be “the little engine that could” against the United States. Given the heightened international tensions over the Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 to Beijing, Dear Leader seems to have succeeded in opening up a new front in the Mediterranean for his mischief.
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