Sea Transportation: Notorious North Korean Smuggling Fleet


May 21, 2023: North Korea recently purchased another second-hand cargo ship from a Chinese firm. This makes six so far this year. In all of 2022 North Korea only purchased six ships. All the 2023 purchases were small ships, the latest one carrying about 3,000 tons. It is suspected that North Korea is using the new ships for smuggling, specifically by taking on or transferring cargo at sea in its own territorial waters. The North Korean merchant fleet consists of about 130 ships, nearly all of them small cargo vessels. Most are purchased from Chinese firms.

North Korea is a notorious and persistent maritime smuggler. Because of North Korean smuggling the United States expanded its maritime smuggling and sanctions enforcement program in 2018, when a new multi-national ECC (Enforcement Coordination Cell) was created. Initial members were the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, France, South Korea, and Japan. The ECC is enforcing the UN sanctions approved at the end of 2017 to curb North Korean smuggling related to items needed for their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In addition, the ECC allowed member nations to also enforce whatever other sanctions or naval missions their government put a priority on. The U.S. has since invited India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines to join and assist with monitoring growing Chinese violation of offshore water rights, especially in the South China Sea and other areas of the West Pacific.

The ECC concentrates on the 2,000-kilometer-long shipping lane from the Indian ocean, through the Malacca Strait, the South China Sea to North Korea. Along this route there are not only North Korean flagged ships participating in smuggling, but even more Chinese, Taiwanese, Liberian, Sri Lankan, and ships that are independent and fly whatever flag they believe will keep them from getting seized for smuggling. Earlier U.S. efforts had already identified many North Korean and Iranian owned tankers and cargo ships that were often engaged in smuggling. This led Iran and North Korea to use their own ships less and willing foreign ships instead. These third-party ships are the ones the ECC sought to identify. These ships can be identified, along with their owners and the owners can have banking and other sanctions placed on them. Many nations not part of the ECC, but economic partners with ECC members will cooperate if a smuggler ship visits one of their ports. At that point the captain can be arrested and the ship impounded.

The ECC member warships do not depend on inspecting suspicious ships while at sea, but confirming who is where and when. This is especially useful for spotting smugglers who often turn off their location beacons, and “running dark.” These location beacons transmit current ID and location to any nearby ships and often, via satellite, to their owner and international shipping organizations. The location data, past and current, can be found on several public websites. The beacons exist mainly as a safety measure for ships operating at night or in bad weather in heavily used shipping lanes. Smugglers have learned how to turn off their beacons near a port where, it is assumed, they have docked or anchored off the coast waiting for an available dock.

Some smugglers are using spoofing, a form of jamming that just modifies the beacon signal to present a false location. This is where warships and maritime aircraft come in as these can identify ships visually or using radar followed by visual inspection. This is more damaging to the smugglers because it provides more evidence that their ship was involved in smuggling and with enough evidence you can go after the ship owners and seize the ship whenever it enters coastal (within 22 kilometers of land) waters belonging to a nation that will seize outlaw ships.

The ECC is based on the success of Task Force 150, which came to involve twenty nations contributing ships and aircraft to deal with the Somali piracy problem. By 2012 the problem was under control but the threat and a smaller Task Force remains. As the Somali piracy problem was fading under Task Force 150 pressure, the U.S. organized another ECC to monitor and disrupt North Korea and Iran smuggling operations. This was done with the aid of the “Five Eyes”, a post-World War II intel cooperation group consisting of the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Five Eyes intel agencies shared an unprecedented amount of intelligence on foreign threats during the Cold War and continued doing so after the Cold War ended in 1991. As international Islamic terrorism began to increase during the 1990s and especially after 2001, the Five Eyes continued to provide the member nations with much more useful intel than any of them could gather themselves. This became particularly useful as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and adjacent seas escalated after 2012, as the size of the Chinese navy and threats it posed to most of the Five Eyes members as well as other allies like Japan and South Korea. This encouraged many nations to join or consider joining the new ECC as well as earlier counter-terrorism efforts.

The ECC is allowed to detain, board, and seize suspected smuggler ships that prove to be smuggling. There is no standard ROE (Rules of Engagement) for this and each ECC member can apply their own ROE. The U.S., for example, has an ROE that does not allow it to block the movement of North Korean ships or use force to board a ship whose crew opposes it.

Currently the U.S. provides most of the warships assigned to the ECC, as well as one of the U.S. Navy Command Ships; the USS Blue Ridge. These command ships are literally dedicated fleet command ships which carry a large array of communications gear as well as accommodations and work space for nearly 300 command staff. The Blue Ridge now has about fifty officers and specialists from other ECC member nations on board. The main work of the Blue Ridge is to collect all the information ECC member nation warships and aircraft are collecting, and quickly analyze it, and report to ships of the ECC any important new findings as well as sending data to agencies ashore that handle further investigation and eventually sanctions or seizure of the ship. The American multinational command staff on the Blue Ridge also builds cooperation and improves coordination between the navies involved. This has turned out to be extremely valuable, as was similar international participation in Task Force 150. While China is not participating in the ECC, it is encountering and communicating with ECC ships, as it did when Chinese ships served (and still serve) in Task Force 150.


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