Israel-based marine data and technology company Windward has published a blog entry that refers to “The Curious Case of the Su Ri Bong”.
Dror Salzman, Customer Success Manager at Windward, wrote that the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on North Korea publishes an annual update on the DPRK, the impact of sanctions and the increasingly sophisticated ways Pyongyang evades them. Windward said that the most remarkable case it had ever encountered was that of the Su Ri Bong.
The curious case of the vessel began on June 25th 2019 (then called the FU XING 12). China-flagged, the bulk carrier was dispatched to Chinese scrapyard Ningbo to be broken up. However, that did not happen.
On August 2nd the vessel came back to life. It resumed transmission, changed its name to Pu Zhou and its flag to Sierra Leone. However, rather than transmit its own identifier, it takes on the MMSI of Sierra Leone-flagged Kinteki Maru.
After a week drifting off the coast of China, the bulk carrier reports an empty draft and sets sail, heading east.
Five days later on August 14th the Pu Zhou goes dark and heads towards North Korea. Perhaps unintentionally the vessel resumes transmissions as it enters the DPRK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). About a week later, it goes dark again, this time for 47 days. During that time the vessel’s ownership was transferred to a British Virgin Islands company – a one-ship company with no specific address or connection with any other firm.
On October 5th the vessel resumed transmission inside the North Korean port of Nampo. At this point it changes its ID again, this time to North Korean-flagged Su Ri Bong. It heads upriver and calls at the port of Songnim.
Satellite images provided by Planet Labs indicated that the bulker’s compartments are open, ready to be loaded with sanctioned DPRK coal.
A few days later, the Su Ri Bong headed south, leaving North Korea’s EEZ and changing its identity yet again – this time to China-flagged Hua Hai.
It again co-opted the MMSI of another vessel – this time the Su Tong Hai.
Windward said that it did so for three very good reasons:
it bears a striking resemblance to our bulk carrier, both in size and appearance;
it has an almost identical voyage history with the Hua Hai’s earlier incarnation;
finally, the Su Tong Hai hadn’t transmitted since January 2018, meaning there was no other vessel transmitting the Su Ri Bong’s new MMSI, potentially reducing suspicion.
On November 12th, sailing south, the Hua Hai reports a draft that suggests it’s fully-loaded (before docking at Songnim in North Korea its reported draft was empty). Then, suddenly, it conducts a U-turn for no apparent reason. Its new destination was unknown.
Deviating from its course, the bulk carrier did not call at a port. Instead, it stopped off at a tiny and uninhabited Chinese island. Satellite images showed its compartments open, and what appeared to be other smaller bulk carriers milling around it. Even more interesting is that the bulk carrier now had cranes on board. These cranes would have allowed it to self-discharge, i.e. carry out ship-to-ship transfers with the smaller vessels.
Reporting a draft change that now shows the vessel to be empty, the bulk carrier heads back towards North Korea. On November 29th it enters the North Korean EEZ, changes its identity back to Su Ri Bong, and heads to the port of Nampo. It hasn’t been seen since.
Windward noted that until recently all a vessel had to do to go off grid was change its flag. Yet as the case of the Su Ri Bong shows, sanctions evasion tactics had come a long way since then.
“Staying safe in the face of these sophisticated tactics requires a new breed of behavioural-based analytics. In this way, we can see through these ever-evolving deceptive shipping practices, and discover the true behaviour of vessels like the Su Ri Bong”, concluded Salzman.