The Rosett Report

North Korea-Flagged Ships Visiting Iran; Any Problem Here?

In January, North Korea carried out its fourth illicit nuclear test. On March 2, after weeks of diplomatic haggling, the United Nations Security Council approved a new sanctions resolution on North Korea, which U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power described as “establishing the strongest sanctions the Security Council has imposed in more than two decades.”

So how’s that going?

In the big picture, not so well. North Korea has carried on with its forbidden missile tests, including a submarine launch, and has been visibly preparing for a fifth nuclear test.

Nor are things looking all that good if you home in on some of the details, such as merchant ships linked to North Korea. This latest UN sanctions resolution included a list of 31 ships linked to North Korea, targeted for an asset freeze. The Philippines moved swiftly to comply, impounding one of these ships, the Jin Teng, which was in its waters. Then China demanded that four of the designated ships, including the Jin Teng, should be removed from the sanctions list. It appears the U.S. rolled over and agreed. The Philippines had to let the Jin Teng go. As I note in an April 26th article for the Wall Street Journal on “The Failure of Sanctions Against North Korea,” this sent the message that no one need rush to enforce the new North Korea sanctions.

That’s not a huge surprise; as of last October, almost half the UN’s 193 member states had displayed no particular interest in enforcing the previous sanctions on North Korea — failing to file the implementation reports required by the UN.

Which brings us to some of the North Korea-linked ships that have not appeared at all on either the UN or the U.S. sanctions list. Among them are three small general-cargo ships, which, as I also report in the Journal article, have reflagged since late 2014 from Mongolia and Japan to North Korea, and for roughly the past year have been steaming around the Persian Gulf, making port calls at Iran. Going on information compiled from a number of commercial-shipping databases, it appears that two of these ships have registered owners in Dubai. One has a registered owner with an address care of a company in Tehran.

While it is common for merchant ships to register under flags of convenience, it is not quite convincing to describe North Korean registration as convenient. North Korea’s maritime registry is headquartered in Pyongyang. It is highly likely that in order to flag a vessel to North Korea, the owner would need ties or an introduction of some kind to the Pyongyang regime.

North Korea and Iran have quite enough ties as it is. They have a strategic alliance dating back to the 1980s, based on shared hostility toward the U.S. and its allies, and a prolific record of weapons deals, involving both arms smuggling and shared procurement networks for everything from conventional arms to missile development to nuclear programs (both were part of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan nuclear network). Media reports over the years have alleged nuclear cooperation between the two regimes, something the Obama administration declines to confirm or deny. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified to Congress that North Korea’s help to Syria with the building of a nuclear reactor (destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007) demonstrates North Korea’s willingness to proliferate dangerous technologies.

It is of course possible that these North Korea-flagged ships, in their voyages around the Gulf, are carrying legitimate cargoes to and from Iran. Nothing here is meant to allege wrong-doing. But if the owners are not themselves linked in some way to North Korea, it’s an intriguing choice of flag. It ought to be an attention-getter, yet these ships have attracted no designations by UN or U.S. sanctions authorities. It also means that to interdict these ships at sea, it would be necessary to obtain the permission of North Korea. Good luck with that.

What cargoes are these ships carrying? Open source databases don’t tell us. The record of North Korea-flagged ships has had its troubling moments. Remember, for instance, the Chong Chon Gang? — a North Korean ship seized by Panama in 2013, en route from Cuba, which turned out to be smuggling 240 tons of arms and related materiel, including surface-to-air missile system components and disassembled MiG-21 jet fighters, hidden under 200,000 bags of sugar.

Will we learn anything more about these vessels flagged to North Korea and making port calls at Iran? I don’t know. But if there’s anyone out there who might have further leads on the nature of this fascinating commerce in the Gulf, here are some of the details, including the unique hull numbers, or IMO numbers, assigned under authority of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), for the life of each ship. (Note, information on shipping databases can be erratic, with some lagging others. The information on the reflagging to North Korea comes from Lloyd’s List Intelligence; additional information comes from Equasis, and the IMO corporate database):

1) Deniz, IMO 8202563. Registered owner: Hadi Khedri (IMO Company Number 5256962), with an address care of Siri Maritime Services, Tehran. (Voyages last year between Turkey and Iran; this year betweem Kuwait and Iran.)

2) Shaima, IMO 8922709. Registered owner: Mohammad Katani Zadeh (IMO Company Number 5856718), address care of Palm Shadow Trading LLC, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Voyages between Dubai and Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Abadan).

3) Yekta, IMO 9103635. Registered Owner: Mehdi Shanbadi Nia (IMO Company Number 5856721), address in Dubai, UAE. (Voyages between Dubai and such Iranian ports as Abadan, Bandar Abbas and Khorramshahr.)