Catherine DillNothing if not persistent: North Korean exploitation of Fijian and Cambodian flags at sea


Guest post by Jake Hulina

Jake Hulina is a research assistant at CNS and an undergraduate student at Middlebury College. His research interests include missile proliferation, geospatial analysis, and maritime tracking. 


Due to North Korea’s continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems, the United Nations Security Council has placed comprehensive sanctions on North Korean trade, restricting the financing of North Korea’s proliferation and sanctions evasion activities. Key to these efforts are the restrictions placed on North Korean shipping.

In spite of these restrictions, North Korean ships continue to engage in global trade, often using deceptive techniques to obscure their true national affiliation. Frequently, such deception involves either fraudulent flag use – the use of falsified documents to claim a country’s nationality without authorization – or the utilization of a flag of the convenience. North Korean linked-entities have exploited the flags of the Republic of Fiji and the Kingdom of Cambodia in such a manner.

Fiji operates a closed maritime registry, open only to boats that operate within Fijian waters. However, in 2017, the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji reported to the International Maritime Organization a total of 91 vessels fraudulently claiming the Fijian flag. Of these, at least 20 were affiliated with North Korea.

Historically, Cambodia has operated an open maritime registry. This enabled foreign-owned ships to register with the country for use of its flag. However, in 2016 the Cambodian Ministry of Public Works and Transport closed its maritime registry following numerous instances of Cambodian flagged vessels partaking in nefarious activities, including North Korean sanctions evasion.

Despite the efforts of Cambodia and Fiji, North Korean vessels have continued to exploit their flags by manipulating their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders – devices designed for improving navigational safety. AIS transponders transmit a series of unique vessel identifiers among other physical and geographic characteristics. Of these unique identifiers, the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number – specifically the first three digits – is used to convey a vessel’s national affiliation. By altering this number, a vessel can claim any number of national affiliations without the knowledge or authorization of the countries affected. North Korean MMSI manipulation not only enables vessels to conceal illicit trade, but may also lead to reputational harm for the exploited states as it implicates them in activities they had no part in.

This potential for illicit trade and reputational harm, at least with regards to Cambodia and Fiji, is illustrated in the following three cases based on AIS data from IHS Markit.

A LI

From at least 15 November 2019 until at least 11 February 2020, a cargo vessel using a Fijian MMSI number to transmit under the name A LI can be observed in AIS data operating off the coast of China. Beyond the immediate red flag that Fiji does not officially operate any international cargo vessels, there are several signs the vessel may be involved in illicit activity. The vessel’s AIS was disabled when it appeared to be headed in the direction of North Korean territorial waters, suggesting potential trade with North Korea. In addition, the IMO number – a supposedly unique identifier assigned to a vessel’s physical structure – transmitted by the A LI is assigned to an Indian tugboat.

Moreover, A LI’s transmitted length of 146 meters matches with that of YON PUNG 3, a North Korean vessel. In addition, YON PUNG 3’s IMO number (8314881) is almost identical to the transmitted IMO of A LI (8814881). The close relation between these two IMO numbers is telling; North Korea frequently alters existing IMO numbers to create false vessel identities.

Coordinates of vessel transmitting as A LI and YON PUNG 3 showing matching pattern of movement

When the AIS data from YON PUNG 3 is aggregated together with the AIS data from A LI, their transmitted coordinates form a singular pattern of movement. This suggests that the A LI is the North Korean YON PUNG 3 and not a Fijian vessel as it claims. Were it not already known that the use of the Fijian MMSI number was unauthorized, Fiji may have been implicated in the YON PUNG 3’s activities.

RICHMOND HILL/C U

From at least 20 September 2019 until at least 13 October 2019, AIS data shows a cargo vessel using a Cambodian MMSI number travelled from Lianyungang, China, to Nampo, North Korea, while broadcasting the names RICHMOND HILL and C U.

The vessel broadcast two different IMO numbers and two different lengths over the course of the voyage. The first IMO number (8514411) is assigned to the Indonesian cargo vessel SHINPO 19, which – according to the Equasis maritime database – was formerly flagged to Cambodia and known as RICHMOND HILL. The second IMO number (8970393) was transmitted with the name C U. While this IMO number is not assigned to any vessel, it is very similar that of the North Korean vessel CHONG UN (8703933). In addition, the transmitted length of C U matches that of CHONG UN.

Coordinates of vessel transmitting as RICHMOND HILL and C U from at least 20 September 2019 until at least 13 October 2019 showing use of two IMO numbers

Due to the lack of additional AIS information and corroborating satellite imagery, it is not possible at this time to confirm the transmitting vessel is CHONG UN. However, according to geographic coordinates from the AIS transponder affiliated with the IMO number 8514411, SHINPO 19 generally operates in Indonesian waters, far from the Korean Peninsula. It is probable that the vessel in question is the CHONG UN deceptively transmitting information previously associated with SHINPO 19.

Regardless of vessel identity, the use of an unauthorized Cambodian MMSI number – if not recognized as fraud – on a voyage to North Korea has the potential to implicate Cambodia in activities far outside of its jurisdiction.

DPETRO166/ON WON

From at least 28 November 2019 until at least 27 December 2019, AIS data shows a tanker sailing under the name DPETRO166 transmitted a Cambodian MMSI number from off the coast of China. On 3 June 2020, AIS data shows tanker sailing under the name ON WON transmitted a Fijian MMSI number also from off the coast of China. The IMO number broadcast in both cases (8613360) is assigned to SONG WON, a North Korean tanker that, when formerly known as the PUMA, was blacklisted by the Fijian authorities for fraudulent flag use.

AIS data for SONGWON clearly shows the vessel makes trips from North Korea’s east coast towards China. When in transit in the vicinity of North Korean territorial waters, the vessel transmits its assigned North Korean MMSI number. However, when near the Chinese coast, it has instead utilized Fijian and Cambodian MMSI numbers (520377258 and 515756000, respectively) to obscure its North Korean identity. While the specific reason for MMSI manipulation in these locations is not known, it should be noted that these areas are frequently used by North Korean vessels for ship-to-ship transfers, an activity North Korea is prohibited from doing under United Nations’ sanctions.

In this case, the reputational risk to the Cambodian and Fijian authorities is similar to the previous cases. The fact that the vessel was previously blacklisted by the Fijians for flag exploitation only underscores the need for continued diligence. Singular enforcement actions – while beneficial – are not sufficient; continued enforcement is required to preserve the integrity of national ship registries.

Coordinates of SONG WON from 28 November 2019 until 3 June 2020 showing Cambodian and Fijian MMSI numbers

Conclusion

Cambodia and Fiji have both historically taken strong actions to protect their maritime interests. While these efforts have been helpful in combating illicit North Korean trading, they have not been wholly effective at preventing flag exploitation. The observed MMSI manipulation by North Korean linked ships shows such efforts do not mean that a state is immune from further exploitation. As is evident by the case of the SONG WON, even a previously blacklisted vessel can continue to cause trouble.

To best protect the reputations of national flags and enforce UN sanctions, all states should continually monitor AIS information for false MMSI numbers, not only to constrain North Korea’s illicit maritime activity, but to protect their reputations as well.

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