North Korea evades U.N. sanctions with shell games, spell games, and whack-a-mole

On any given day, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control may publish several pages of new designations for the list of Specially Designated Nationals. Inevitably, most of the designations will be designations of aliases. That’s because one of the oldest sanctions-evasion tricks is renaming an entity, so that when banks type its name into their software, they don’t get a hit that might warn them to decline the transaction, block the account, or file a Suspicious Activity Report.

In the case of North Korea, there’s an additional and related problem. North Korea can also play spell games with the English transliteration of Korean names. The U.N. Panel of Experts has specifically raised that issue as a problem that requires closer attention from national governments.

So when Treasury designates a list of North Korean smuggling ships, as it did last July, it’s not enough to publish their names and IMO numbers and call it done.

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Like any sanctions program, the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea requires constant attention and follow-up.

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It’s a long game of what Marcus Noland calls Whack-a-Mole. And judging by the POE’s latest report, we aren’t winning that game.

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This isn’t a grand new revelation. NK News’s Leo Byrne, one of the very best reporters to cover North Korea for any publication, noticed this last October. Four months later, Treasury hasn’t followed up with new alias designations. You can even extend that M.O. back to this 2006 New York Times report, on North Korea’s use of deceptive shipping practices, like re-naming and re-flagging. Whether Treasury’s inaction reflects a lack of political will or a simple lack of resources, I’ll decline to speculate.

A key point the POE makes is that member states are required to seize these vessels as soon as they identify them.

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Instead, several nations are allowing Ocean Maritime Management to continue operating on their soil, or from their ports.

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OMM doesn’t just rename its ships; it also renames itself. Lately, for example, it has gone by the names “Haejin Ship Management Co Ltd.” and “Yongjin Ship Management Co Ltd.” Sometimes, it puts each ship under the ownership of its own shell company. The POE also suspects that OMM is working through Singapore-based entities known as ”Senat Shipping & Trading Private Limited,” “Senat Shipping Limited,” and “Senat Shipping Agency Pte. Ltd.,” particularly for the handling of its financial transactions. The POE put some questions to Senat. Senat hasn’t responded.

OMM’s deceptive practices don’t only appear to be designed to evade sanctions. They also appear to be intended to evade creditors. Switching the ownership of each ship to a single shell company is helpful for that.

As a result, OMM is still in business. And in some cases, its agents are actually North Korean diplomats.

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The POE even made this interesting diagram.

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North Korea isn’t only playing whack-a-mole with shipping. Notorious (and U.N.-designated) proliferator Ryonha Machinery sometimes goes by “Millim Technology Company.” It operates openly in Dandong and Beijing, China under that name. The General Department of Atomic Energy of the DPRK now calls itself the “Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry of DPRK.” The Korean Committee for Space Technology recently renamed itself the “National Aerospace Development Administration,” or NADA (couldn’t you have checked that one with your Cuban friends?). The Second Academy of Natural Sciences has taken to calling itself the “National Defence Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

The moles, in other words, are popping up faster than we can whack them. Thanks to Chinese stalling, the U.N. bureaucracy is too hopelessly slow to keep up, and the member state governments (including ours) that are supposed to be enforcing these sanctions aren’t paying attention.

The report tells us some other interesting things about North Korea’s merchant fleet. As North Korea’s fleet ages out, it is switching to smaller vessels. In a rare bit of good news, its port calls in non-Chinese foreign ports have declined dramatically in recent years, “to just 6 percent of 2008 figures,” according to the POE. Today, nearly all of its direct shipping trade is with China. It would make sense for North Korea to migrate to smaller ships in that case. In the past, for example, in the 2009 ANL Australia incident, North Korea shipped its cargo to Chinese ports in containers, and then played a shell game with port authorities all the way to Dubai, and very nearly to Bandar Abbas.

North Korea is also relying more on reflagging — the use of so-called “flags of convenience,” to dodge inspections.

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The obvious answer is for governments to call on these states to stop reflagging North Korean ships, unless they physically cross-check their IMOs. If these states continue reflagging vessels that are subject to immediate seizure, vessels flying these flags should be targeted for inspection by the United States and other countries. This is a national security issue. God only knows what the North Koreans might want to slip into this country in a shipping container. For more on that option, see Section 205 of the NKSEA.

One potential exploit in North Korea’s shipping system is insurance. North Korea has found it difficult enough to insure its vessels that it self-insures.

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We saw, in the case of the Mu Du Bong, that North Korean self-insurance isn’t particularly useful. One solution to that problem is for ports to refuse to accept KSPIA as a valid insurer. When port directors and customs inspectors see that a vessel is insured by KSPIA, that should also be a signal for them to check the vessel’s IMO number, or any links to Ocean Maritime Management or its aliases. If they can, they should be seizing any of its vessels on the spot.

Finally, North Korean ships are switching off their transponders.

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Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 6.56.41 PMThat’s often the first sign of a vessel that’s engaged in smuggling or piracy. Those vessels should be followed to port, boarded, and inspected.

The POE also seems close to calling for the designation of Air Koryo, although I’d personally counsel against that, absent some established link between them and North Korea’s post-UNSCR 1874 smuggling:

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I’ll close with this graphic of POE’s various methods of deception.

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Clearly, many member states aren’t taking the enforcement of these sanctions seriously. What’s most obviously lacking is any coordination of enforcement among governments. If only there were some inter-governmental organization whose mission were to control proliferation through international air and maritime cargo. Even better, if only that organization were unencumbered by a requirement for unanimous consent, or the threat of a veto from Russia or China. Oh, wait. There is exactly such an organization. So what’s stopping us?