North Korean Ships Continue to Flout Sanctions

The North Korean vessel Musan 1 (file image)

Published Mar 10, 2017 5:22 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a recent report prepared for the UN Security Council and obtained by the AP, a panel of experts concluded that North Korea is successfully evading sanctions on two dozen ships that are suspected of involvement in arms smuggling

Despite the Security Council ban on doing business with these vessels, AIS records show that several have continued to call at Russian and Japanese ports without attempting to disguise their presence. In addition, the panel suggests that North Korea has adopted a form of identity fraud to keep banned ships trading. Eight of the blacklisted ships have attempted to mask their identity by renaming, reflagging, changing their call signs, adopting new MMSI numbers and omitting their IMO number from their AIS transmissions and shipboard documentation. 

The majority of these vessels belong to Ocean Maritime Management, the operator of the notorious freighter Chong Chon Gang, which was detained in Panama in 2013 when authorities found contraband munitions on board. Among other cargo, the vessel carried nine anti-aircraft missiles, two MiG-21 fighters, 15 MiG-21 engines, six military vehicles, artillery shells amd rocket-propelled grenades, all buried under 200,000 bags of sugar. The sugar and “two thousand empty polyethylene bags” were the only declared items on the cargo manifest. 

The panel reported that North Korea has been able to continue these smuggling activities despite sanctions, in part through its longstanding use of foreign flag registries. About half of the banned vessels had been flagged in Mongolia but were delisted after the imposition of sanctions, and many have since migrated to the flag of Tanzania – the lowest-ranked of all registries on the Paris MOU "black list." 

In the most recent example of the DPRK’s misuse of foreign registries, the Cambodian-flagged freighter Jie Shun was detained in August en route from North Korea to the Suez Canal, and was found to be carrying 24,000 North Korean-made rocket-propelled grenades under 2,000 tons of iron ore (above). The grenades were declared as “assembly parts of the underwater pump.”

“This case demonstrates not only how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea abuses flag of convenience cover, but also how it uses vessels managed by third-country nationals to transfer different types of prohibited goods,” the panel said. It recommended that the Security Council should strengthen the sanctions by forbidding flag states to register any ships with North Korean crews.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told the Phnom Penh Post that “we don’t accept this [illegal] activity at all. This is against the UN.” He noted that Cambodia terminated its open registry program just after the Jie Shun incident, but International Transport Workers' Federation maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith pointed out that several North Korean vessels continue to fly the Cambodian flag. “The register has been and clearly still is being used/abused by North Korea for vessels transporting weapons and shows that the Cambodian government has not been able to retake control of its register," she said.

Uninsured drivers

The panel added that many North Korean-flagged ships (including those not on the sanctions list) have been insured by foreign entities that have been "liquidated by court order for being unable to perform their obligations to the insured." As these vessels may be operating without legitimate coverage, the panel recommends that flag and port states should check the legal validity of insurance documents for DPRK-flagged ships and other vessels manned by North Korean nationals.