Photo/IllutrationA hose connects a North Korean tanker, right, with an unidentified vessel in the East China Sea. (Provided by the Defense Ministry)

Washington plans to dispatch U.S. Coast Guard cutters to the Asia-Pacific region to thwart North Korean smuggling attempts and enforce international sanctions, a move generally welcomed by Japan.

Several government sources said U.S. officials have contacted their counterparts in Japan about the dispatch.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Japan Coast Guard have been patrolling the Sea of Japan and East China Sea to check for possible violations of the sanctions slapped on Pyongyang.

The MSDF has on three separate occasions taken photos of ships suspected of transferring items, such as petroleum, to other vessels at sea. The Foreign Ministry has reported the findings to the U.N. Security Council in an attempt to maintain pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons development program.

However, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said, “There are limits to what Japan can do, and the burden now is heavy.”

At a meeting in Tokyo on Feb. 7, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence confirmed the need to strengthen cooperation to deal with the ship-to-ship transfer of oil and other items by North Korea.

The U.S. Coast Guard comes under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is authorized to exercise police action at sea as a military unit.

A Japanese government source said having the U.S. Coast Guard deal with ship-to-ship transfers would “apply psychological pressure on North Korea.”

When the U.S. Treasury Department on Feb. 23 announced new sanctions against North Korea, it included the names of ships that have provided oil to North Korea through transfers at sea.

In September 2017, the United States proposed as an additional sanction against North Korea the ability to forcibly board ships suspected of providing products to North Korea.

However, the U.N. Security Council did not include that measure on its list of sanctions because of opposition from several nations.

“At the current time, there is no consensus in the international community to take such measures,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.