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North Korea Ships Engage In Nationality Laundering, Says South Korea

Repost: A North Korea-flagged ship, Wol Bong San, previously accused of illegal transshipment, was spotted near the Busan Port and the authority identified nine GPS signals over three hours on October 25, 2021. However, the South Korean government was not aware it was a blacklisted ship until the annual parliamentary inspection last month.

Rep. Hong Moon-pyo from the ruling People Power Party, who requested data on North Korea-flagged ships from the government, said the fact that the authority did not know about the blacklisted ship entering South Korean waters implied a “serious threat” to the country’s maritime security.

Wol Bong San was caught transporting sanctioned oil to the Nampo Port, North Korea in September 2020. North Korea is under global sanction by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397. The whereabout of the vessel is currently unknown, and its last known location is traced back to the Busan Port last October.

Replying to Hong, the Korea Coast Guard first said it could not know of the ship’s identity because it was not recorded on the port’s the arrival and departure system but later, the Coast Guard claimed the detected GPS signals were inaccurate.

Hong said Wol Bong San was not the only North Korean vessel spotted around the country’s ports. Since 2018, there were 10 ships allegedly owned by North Korea that went through South Korean ports, including Wol Bong San. These ships were either North Korea-flagged or ships once owned by South Korea but now reflagged to other countries.

Out of the 10 ships, six changed their flags from South Korea to North Korea once they departed from South Korean ports. Five of them came through the Busan Port, changed their nationalities to Sierra Leone or Palau, and then sailed to the South China Sea or the international waters near North Korea. Those ships were later found at the Nampo Port in North Korea or caught while transshipping fuel and other containers bound for North Korea.

Hong said if North Korea-flagged ships continue to enter and change their nationalities at South Korean ports, the government will be accused of not complying with the UN Security Council Resolution 2397, since Article 7 required all member states to “prohibit the direct or indirect supply sale or transfer” to North Korea, using vehicles, including “their flag vessels”.

“Under our very eyes, illegal transfers of ownerships of vessels happened in our ports, which were once known to be very secure, but are now laundromats for nationality,” Hong said.

There were cases of North Korean ships found with flags of different countries in the past, too. For example, in 2016, reports said North Korea reflagged more than 50 ships, and 15 percent of them were disguised as Tanzania-flagged ships. In 2018, the Trust Company of the Marshall Islands, the maritime administrator of the country, canceled the registration of a local company whose ship was involved in the transshipment of oil to North Korea.

One reason that explained the frenzied reflagging was the economic difficulties caused by the international sanctions. North Korea’s Sanction Damage Analysis Committee said in 2017 the country was experiencing “immeasurable loss” and called the sanctions an “evil crime”. To overcome sanctions, North Korean ships reflagged to different nationalities and buy or sell resources through mass transshipment.

In 2021, the Royal United Services Institute, a research institute based in the United Kingdom, pointed out the sanctions against North Korea were not effective due to “lax enforcement”, meaning the UN member states were not complying with the regulations, and instead, provided opportunities for the country to avoid them. The institute also recommended member states to monitor illegal activities of North Korea more rigorously.

Rep. Hong also urged the ports, the Korea Coast Guard, and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries to provide “continuous, systematic responsive measures” in monitoring North Korea to comply with international regulations.

Maritime Fairtrade

Marine Online Media Team
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