Andrea BergerRecent Activity at Nampo

My colleagues Catherine Dill, Cameron Trainer and I were reminded when looking at satellite imagery of Nampo, taken yesterday morning, that North Korea’s evasive tactics are successfully keeping the country’s coal and iron exporters in business.

Prior to being sanctioned by the UN, these export commodities were amongst North Korea’s biggest earners. Information about trade in North Korean coal and iron has degraded significantly since they were banned by the UN, and since North Korea’s networks devised and implemented ways to work around those sanctions.

Here is its basic approach, outlined in much more detail in the most recent UN Panel of Experts report. First, ships going into North Korean waters and ports to load prohibited commodities turn off their transponders. International regulations stipulate that vessels need to transmit their location using their Automatic Identification Service every fifteen minutes, with very limited exceptions. But ships engaging in North Korean business aren’t the law-abiding type. Why make it easier for outsiders to watch illicit activity, right?

The same line of thought leads these vessels to keep their AIS off when travelling on either side of the DPRK coast. Here is an example that the folks at Planet very neatly visualized:

Graphic: Planet Labs, Inc. Data Source: Windward; US Foreign Affairs Committee; CC-BY-SA 4.0. 

Once the North Korean goods have been loaded onto the vessel, the ship then tends to adopt one of a few approaches:

A) It travels to a port in a neighboring country, usually China, and loiters outside of it. Its operators then falsify relevant documentation to make it seem as if the ship has called and loaded goods in that Chinese port, rather than in the DPRK. The vessel then sails on to its destination, where it will declare the goods as Chinese-origin.

B) It travels to a port in a neighboring country, usually Russia, and drops off the goods (generally coal). A second non-DPRK-flagged vessel will then call in the same port shortly thereafter, reload the coal, and take it to its destination.The coal is declared as Russian.

South Korea and several Southeast Asian countries have learnt this the hard way, having discovered after the fact that they inadvertently purchased North Korean coal that they thought had come from a legitimate source.

Leo Byrne at NK News also has some excellent reporting on the movements of North Korean-linked vessels to foreign coal- and iron-handling ports, especially in China, which suggests that North Korea’s exporters may again finding markets without having to adopt such elaborate schemes to hide the cargo’s origin.

By monitoring North Korean coal ports through daily satellite imagery and layering that information with data derived from other sources, we are sometimes able to fill in gaps in formal trade data and observe the start of North Korea’s process of exporting prohibited commodities, whether transported directly or indirectly.

Yesterday, for example, there were a couple of ships happily loading up at the coal terminal at Nampo port. This coal is almost certainly for export, as North Korea does not typically tend to move coal intended for internal consumption by sea.

Imagery with 3-meter resolution provided by Planet Labs shows two vessels at the Nampo Coal Terminal as of 24 July. These vessels arrived at some point between 22 and 24 July.

Two unidentified ships with open hatches load coal at a quay in Nampo, North Korea, on July 24, 2018. ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0. 

The vessels are relatively large, measuring approximately 160 and 168 meters in length. Our analysis of the fleet that is probably controlled by North Korea suggests that most of the country’s vessels are relatively small. This also applies to the fleet that overtly flies North Korea’s flag. Larger ships spotted, like the two caught on camera yesterday, are therefore more likely to be foreign-flagged and –controlled, but we cannot rule out the possibility that they are North Korean vessels.

Both ships appear to be bulk cargo carriers and to have open hatches, probably for the purpose of onboarding coal (the black area on the docks is likely piles of coal, a signature we see at other coal-handling terminals as well).

In rarer cases when we see this sort of activity, we get lucky and can actually identify the ship based on gaps in AIS coverage for nearby vessels, and the overhead profile of the ship.

As noted above, the approach a vessel chooses to use to obscure the origin of its goods will impact our ability to track these vessels once they leave Nampo. False documentation, prolonged gaps in AIS coverage, and intricate maneuvering complicate persistent monitoring with daily satellite imagery, especially during a cloudy time of year. Regardless, the Nampo coal terminal clearly is not without customers.