North Korea’s tactics to dodge maritime sanctions

North Korea is sanctioned by the US, the EU and the UN, with the aim of halting the North Korean government’s proliferation of nuclear weapons, and yet the country adopts a range of tactics to sidestep the blockades, reports Global Risk Intelligence.

The sanctioning countries and organizations have frozen the assets of involved individuals, restricted fishing rights and the rights to cooperate internationally with the scientific and technical community. They have capped imports of natural oil and refined petroleum products, banning imports and exports of arms, military equipment, vehicles, luxury goods, coal, natural gas, minerals, seafood, agricultural products, and other resources.

Since the 2000s the UN Security Council has passed several resolutions to strengthen the sanctions regime.

However, the North Korean government has gradually developed sanctions evasion tactics during this time and its maritime sanctions evasion tactics have become particularly elaborate.

North Korea performs stealthy ship-to-ship transfers in order to export coal and to import natural oil; it follows misleading sea routes and turns off AIS signals mid-voyage. It also registers North Korean ships in foreign countries, while on occasion the publicly displayed IMO number was reported to have either been obscured or altered.

North Korea has manipulated documents to register vessels in open registries, including Panama and Comoros.

The STS transfers enable the avoidance of customs declarations and in recent years North Korea has utilized this tactic to a greater degree.

About 100 ships transmitted location and vessel ID signals each month in 2015, while fewer than 12 ships out of 170 enabled AIS transponders in the latter half of 2018.

It was thought that North Korean tankers with disabled AIS transponders imported as many as 2.5m barrels of crude oil during 2018, compared with a UN-capped annual quota of 500,000 barrels.

Examining vessel documentation for ambiguous country of origin statements )e.g., “Korea” could be an indicator. Ship safety certificates and other documentation might emanate from fake “front” operations.

GRI concluded that, from a policy perspective, applying maximum pressure on the DPRK through tougher sanctions might not always result in the best outcome. North Korea had met increasingly rigorous sanctions with resistance, refining its evasion techniques rather than complying with the requirements that caused the sanctions to be imposed in the first place. “For this reason, the utility of sanctions can be ensured through better sanctions enforcement, a task that requires relentless and meticulous effort”, said GRI.

It said that port authorities and ship registrars were the pillars of sanctions enforcement. “They must be well-trained in the tricks of North Korea’s trade while also remaining alert and reliable. Ensuring this is certainly a difficult task, yet it appears that there are no alternatives if sanctions-imposing powers like the UN, the EU, or the US want to prevent the DPRK from evading sanctions and thus undermining their utility”.