Leo Byrne is (almost) single-handedly destroying North Korea’s smuggling fleet

The other night, I was chatting with a reader who was surprised to hear me praise NK News. Although I consider Chad O’Carroll a friend, it’s no secret that Chad and I have philosophical differences about North Korea policy. Some of the things I read at NK News make me roll my eyes; others drive me to paroxysms of rage. But what I can never say about NK News is that it pulls punches. Its decision to publish Nate Thayer’s stunning expose of AP Pyongyang was as brave as the report itself was devastating. Its report on the Masikryong Ski Resort exposed serious sanctions violations and wound up being cited in the U.N. Panel of Experts reports. It did better reporting on the Pyongyang apartment collapse story from Seoul than the AP did from a few blocks away (Update: See? This is what I’m talking about.). You can love it, hate it, or alternate between both of those reactions, but NK News has become a public utility for North Korea watchers. 

Yet NK News’s single greatest asset must be Leo Byrne, whose investigative tenacity and meticulousness puts him into contention to be the single best journalist covering North Korea for any publication, anywhere. Byrne does what too few journalists bother to do — he digs up hard-to-find facts; reads the legal authorities that give those facts meaning, consequence, and context; and reports them. Byrne’s recent reporting on shipping sanctions has been a good example of this. For some days now, I’d meant to find the time to write about his discovery that, following the adoption of U.N. Security Council in 2270 in March, 50 North Korean ships re-registered under the Tanzanian flag:

According to data from Marine Traffic, the Equasis maritime database, and inspection records from Port State Control (PSC) authorities, around 15 percent of ships on the NK Pro vessel tracker now sail with under (sic) a Tanzanian flag, with the large majority of changes happening over a three-month period.

The numbers and time frames indicate an unprecedented campaign to reflag vessels with links to the DPRK, dwarfing previous flurries of changes that occurred after the UN and U.S. designated a North Korean shipping company in 2014. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

That’s a problem, because UNSCR 2270 says this:

“19.  Decides that Member States shall prohibit their nationals and those in their territories from leasing or chartering their flagged vessels or aircraft or providing crew services to the DPRK, and decides that this prohibition shall also apply with respect to any designated individuals or entities, any other DPRK entities, any other individuals or entities whom the State determines to have assisted in the evasion of sanctions or in violating the provisions of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, any individuals or entities acting on behalf or at the direction of any of the aforementioned, and any entities owned or controlled by any of the aforementioned, calls upon Member States to de?register any vessel that is owned, operated or crewed by the DPRK, further calls upon Member States not to register any such vessel that is de-registered by another Member State pursuant to this paragraph, and decides that this provision shall not apply with respect to such leasing, chartering or provision of crew services notified to the Committee in advance on a case-by-case basis accompanied by: a) information demonstrating that such activities are exclusively for livelihood purposes which will not be used by DPRK individuals or entities to generate revenue, and b) information on measures taken to prevent such activities from contributing to violations of the aforementioned resolutions;

North Korea’s merchant fleet is subject to international sanctions because of North Korea’s history of using it for smuggling weapons, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

To give credit where it’s due, Claudia Rosett first discovered that the Dawnlight, a North Korean ship designated by the U.N. for arms smuggling, hoisted the Tanzanian flag as the Firstgleam, just days after 2270 was adopted. Byrne’s report shows that this was much more than a one-off; it as part of a pattern and practice of violation that was either grossly negligent, corrupt, or willful. In addition to the ex-Dawnlight, Byrne reports that the ships re-registered under the Tanzanian flag include a vessel designated by the U.S. Treasury Department, and others that have been “mentioned” in U.N. Panel of Experts reports. 

The news site All Africa adds that Tanzania has a checkered history of reflagging ships for Iran, which drew a visit from the local U.S. embassy. The Tanzanian Foreign Ministry blamed “a ‘notorious’ Dubai-based agent” and said it would contact the local North Korean embassy to investigate. Well!

“Diplomatically, we can’t rush to act on unverified issues. But, in general, our international shipping registration agents have been categorically warned against permitting countries sanctioned by the UN to fly our flag because by so doing, the country would be deemed to have violated membership sections of the UN,” Dr Mahiga said. [Louis Kolumbia, AllAfrica]

Let’s hope that that investigation proceeds swiftly to a plausible conclusion, because Tanzania’s shipping registration authority is also in great peril under U.S. law, to the extent the transactions are denominated in dollars (which almost always turns out to be the case). 

First, NKSPEA section104(b) gives the President the authority to designate any person who “knowingly engages in, contributes to, assists, sponsors, or provides financial, material or technological support for, or goods and services in support of, any person designated pursuant to an applicable United Nations Security Council resolution.” Then, Executive Order 13722, which (partially) implements the NKSPEA, imposes sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation industry, potentially widening the risk to any transactions involving North Korean shipping. The potential consequence is that Tanzania’s registry could have its assets frozen. Fortunately, that may not be necessary, because Byrne’s report has captured the undivided attention of the Tanzanian government, which says it has already de-registered 13 of the North Korean ships, and has begun the process of de-registering the rest of them.

ZMA director general Abdallah Hussein said in an interview on Tuesday that the process to deregister Democratic People’s Republic of Korean (DPRK) vessels started in June and was ongoing to ensure no vessel with links to North Korea fly the Tanzania flag in compliance with the UN Security Council sanctions. The minister for Foreign Affairs minister (sic), Dr Augustine Mahiga, had told The Citizen on Sunday that the ministry would initiate a diplomatic process to ensure that all vessels linked to North Korea are deregistered. [….]

If the deregistration started in June as Mr Hussein claimed, then, that hasn’t been reflected yet in the Tanzania foreign ships registry, for the investigation carried out by Leo Byrne, a Data and Analytic Director at NK News based in Seoul shows the majority of the vessels that were deregistered by other countries following tightening of North Korean sanctions “transferred their details to the Tanzanian registry, which accepted nearly all the ships between June and August this year.”

Mr Hussein expressed surprise over the same thing. “I wonder why Mr Byrne’s analysis hasn’t reflected ships that we have deregistered,” he said. [AllAfrica]

As a blogger, the pinnacle of my career was the day I saw my work denounced by KCNA — on May Day, no less. Byrne now shares the rare privilege of being called out by an entire foreign government (in his case, by name). As to the defense that Byrne did not credit Tanzania for de-registering 13 ships, well, that’s fair in the same sense that no one thanked Kim Jong-un for not nuking off last weekend, and no one thanked Donald Trump for not grabbing anyone’s hoo-ha all day yesterday. 

As far as I know, anyway. 

Ideally, U.S. and South Korean diplomats in Dar as Salaam should pay courtesy calls to the Tanzanian Foreign Ministry and politely ask, “Hey, what gives?” Maybe they already have. That approach seems to have worked well enough for enforcing Iran sanctions. But if the State Department doesn’t act, I’d expect that eventually, Congress will ask the same question of the State Department. With Tanzania already acting to de-register North Korean ships, it may be that less subtle approaches should be reserved for more recalcitant targets (are you listening, Namibia?).

Overall, the news looks increasingly bleak for North Korea’s merchant fleet. Panama and Mongolia have de-registered North Korean ships, and Cambodia, the single largest reflagger, appears to be moving in that direction. The government of Jordan identified two cases in which its shippers used a North Korean flag of convenience and has since acted to put an end to that practice. As the range of countries reflagging North Korean ships narrows, more media and diplomatic attention will inevitably focus on those that remain, like Tuvalu and Sierra Leone. A sanctions regime is only as strong as its weakest link, but slowly, link by link, the chain is tightening.

2 Comments

  1. Leo also did some great interviews of participants in the
    Women Cross DMZ march in Seoul in 2015 which helped
    expose them as apologists for the North Korean regime.




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