Claudia Rosett: Shipping sanctions against North Korea are leaking

Unlike my friend, Claudia Rosett, I’d call the new U.N. sanctions against North Korea a qualified success, despite the fact that implementation is still a work in progress. This post, and the other posts it links, summarize the effects of just one aspect of the sanctions — their restrictions on North Korean shipping, which have idled dozens of North Korean ships. Since then, NK News’s Leo Byrne has reported that no North Korean ships have called in the port of Dandong since late March. Other Chinese ports continue to admit North Korean ships, none of which have been designated by the U.N. 

Given the importance of the coal and mineral trade in the regime’s finances, it’s not surprising that the regime is squeezing its people to make up the difference, but it’s finding that even this has limits. There isn’t much to squeeze out of them, and the squeeze also costs the regime in the loyalty of its subjects, including citizens once deemed loyal enough to send abroad. Obviously, this is no time to relax our diplomatic pressure for strict enforcement. Despite these encouraging signs, the long history of sanctions-busting by China, and by North Korea’s arms clients, demands eternal vigilance, and sometimes, the threat of harsh consequences, or sanctions will leak and fail.

There are already some warning signs of how that could happen. For example, one ship that was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department, but not by the U.N., continues to make crossings between North Korea and China. Another example is the case of the M/V Jin Teng. Three days after the Security Council approved Resolution 2270, and designated 31 ships “owned or controlled by” designated North Korean arms smuggler Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), the Philippines seized one of those ships, the Jin Teng. After the seizure, China successfully lobbied Security Council members to lift the designation of the Jin Teng, and even threatened to block the reauthorization of the Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with the sanctions. This week, among other revelations, Claudia Rosett informs us that the Jin Teng has since been released, “sending the message that it’s hardly worth rushing to enforce U.N. sanctions.” That’s worrying.

There are other worrying signs, too. Rosett points to three ships, the Deniz, the Shaima and the Yekta, which fly the North Korean flag and have made regular voyages between North Korea and Iran.

Since March 2015, the Deniz has made at least 10 calls at Iran, including at least four this year, shuttling among Turkey, Kuwait and Iran’s Bushehr port and Kharg and Sarooj terminals. According to Equasis, the Deniz’s registered owner since February 2015 is H. Khedri—or Hadri Khedri, according to the IMO’s shipping-company database—with an address for Siri Maritime Services in Tehran. The Yekta and the Shaima have been making runs between Dubai and the Iranian port of Abadan, which the Yekta visited as recently as April 5.  [Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

The ships are not designated by the U.N., although several facts here certainly call for further investigation by the U.N. Panel of Experts. Rosett points to the long history of WMD cooperation between Iran and North Korea, and any WMD-related commerce would clearly be forbidden by U.N. resolutions going back to 2006. To this, I would add the long history of North Korea supplying arms to Iran, for the use of its terrorist clients, which is also prohibited. The names of the ships aren’t Korean and don’t even sound Persian. If you forced me to guess, I’d say they’re Turkish.

This raises several potential violations of UNSCR 2270:

– The odds seem rather low that we can trust Iran to inspect the North Korean cargo as required by paragraph 18. This points to one loophole the Security Council should close after North Korea’s next nuclear test — to authorize the boarding and search on the high seas of vessels owned or controlled by North Korea when a member state at a vessel’s origin or destination has repeatedly failed to carry out its obligations under the resolutions.

– Rosett notes that “[t]he Deniz was reflagged from Japan, the Shaima and Yekta from Mongolia.” The reflagging (registration) of North Korean ships is banned by paragraph 19. Paragraph 19 also prohibits providing crew services to North Korean vessels.

– Paragraph 20 prohibits foreign ships from flying the North Korean flag, and also requires member states to prohibit the leasing and insurance of vessels flagged by North Korea.

The Panel, and Mongolian and Japanese authorities, should investigate, regulate, and prosecute as appropriate. And that is not all.

Among the North Korea-linked ships still on the U.N. blacklist, some are making fresh maneuvers that appear aimed at camouflaging their identities. The North Korean vessel the Dawnlight, which the U.S. has designated since last year, was flagged to Mongolia. In January it was renamed the Firstgleam and acquired by Sinotug Shipping Limited, a company set up just this past September in the Marshall Islands.

The U.N., having apparently missed the update, blacklisted this ship on March 2 under its old name of Dawnlight. A day later, despite a provision calling for member states to deflag North Korean ships, the Firstgleam was reflagged to Tanzania, according to Lloyds. As of this week, the ship, which the U.N. and U.S.-sanctions lists still refer to as the Mongolia-flagged Dawnlight, was signaling a position close to Japan. [Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

Anna Fifield reported extensively on the Dawnlight here, for The Washington Post, and I’ve also written about it in this post. If investigated, Sinotug may turn out to be another North Korean shell company, but to be clear, I don’t have evidence to conclude that, only that it merits investigation. Tanzania’s reflagging of the Dawnlight is just the latest case of non-compliance by African governments that either don’t know or don’t care that they’re in violation.* The job of our diplomats is to help them know and make them care.

Another continuing problem with China’s implementation continues to be the loophole allowing coal and iron ore imports for “livelihood” purposes. Not one person I know really understands what this ambiguous term means, or what its limits are. If Congress takes up another round of sanctions legislation in response to a nuclear test, it should seek to define “livelihood” more narrowly, perhaps as in-kind exports of food, to be distributed as aid. Coal exports continue to cross the Yellow Sea from North Korea to China. It’s a different story at the land borders, where coal export traffic across the Yalu River has slowed greatly or stopped, while the trade in consumer goods and food continues to flow freely (which, as I keep trying to remind people, is both important and good).

Despite the valuable service Claudia has done for us in this op-ed, I part ways with her when she writes: “It’s highly questionable whether sanctions, however watertight, can stop North Korea’s deeply entrenched nuclear program.” That depends on just exactly how one envisions stopping it. Will sanctions convince Kim Jong-un that it’s in his interest do disarm in good faith? I don’t know anyone who thinks so, although I think it’s important to leave room for that possibility. It may well be that there will be no diplomatic solution as long as His Corpulency weighs down a throne. As I’ve said repeatedly, sanctions are one part of a strategy to convince someone in Pyongyang — most plausibly, the generals surrounding His Porcine Majesty — that the system must change or perish.

Despite these implementation problems, more evidence suggests that shipping sanctions are working than not. Xi Jinping is feeling intense international pressure to seem to be enforcing the sanctions. Six weeks after the passage of UNSCR 2270 seems a bit premature for us to throw up our hands and give up on a promising strategy. What’s needed instead is targeted and tough diplomacy, backed by the threat of tougher national sanctions for those who won’t comply voluntarily.

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* Corrected after posting, because the reflagging did, in fact, happen one day after the adoption of UNSCR 2270.

7 Comments

  1. The names of the ships aren’t Korean and don’t even sound Persian. If you forced me to guess, I’d say they’re Turkish.

    These are actually from three different languages: “Deniz” is a unisex Turkish name that means “sea,” “Shaima” is an Arabic girls’ name (though I suspect it, like many other Arabic names, is also used by non-Arabic-speaking Muslims), and “Yekta” is a Persian girls’ name.




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  2. Sanctions are working, but of course there will be holes — shipping is the most amoral of businesses. But there are still ways to win.
    First, involve the ITF, an international labor union that fights for seamen’s rights. Every time a targetted vessel is visited, Pyongyang will shiver. They provide leaflets, reassurance, secret phone numbers, and they care about the crew, not the owners. The ITF is a powerful outfit.
    Second, ships require fuel, which can be bought on credit, but still requires payment. Follow the money. (I doubt that the Irabian Gulf shuttle ships provide much revenue to the DPRK, because Iran will be supplying oil and offsetting it. Those ships probably smuggle gold among other mundane cargo, so there is no real incentive to search by the Arab trading states, since smuggling gold is part of their traditional economy.) But everywhere else, the cash payments for fuel will exceed a third of a million monthly per big ship, as a rule of thumb.
    Third, secondary boycotts work — use Treasury’s power to freeze assets to make it wholly undesirable for the Flag of Convenience states to accept DPRK ghost shipping.
    Fourth, start inspecting for pollution compliance. Oil pollution is big business, and ships must carry genuine certificates showing ability to pay millions for cleanup, issued by insurers. Check these out, because I doubt that the DPRK can now even get a Chinese gummint insurer to cover. And if the Chinese will, shame them. If a ship lacks a certificate, it is generally detained.

    Nothing really can be done about the small ships in the Gulf of Bohai, because China controls that … but with two recent Musudan fizzles, a partially successful undersea launch, and an upcoming nuke test or two, China is likely to lose patience. It appears to me that Baby Kim’s behavior has been to spite China, and to declare independence. He is gambling everything on getting a working nuke (and so far has only achieved boosted fission atomics) and a working ICBM. He’s going to lose.
    If he is still in power to open the Workers Congress next week, then he’s likely to stay in power for a good while. So I think China will close the border next week, and he will go into exile, as a guest,(in the Potala Palace?)




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  3. This is a question for Joshua, not a comment to this post. (I did not find an email address for Joshua on the website, sorry.)

    What do you think would happen if KJU were to suddenly die? There are many possible ways this could happen, e.g. an accident, assassination by someone in his inner circle or the military, or even assassination by an agent of a foreign power. He has no “heir” or other close relative who could plausibly assume his mantle. What do you think would happen in such a power vacuum?




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  4. @Joshua: Would it warrant intervention by the U.S., South Korea, China, and/or Russia?




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  5. Looks like your link to N.Korea: Witness to Transformation has been broken by their web redesign.




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