North Korea’s oil tanker fleet is especially busy ahead of next month’s anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea, with numerous vessels repurposed to Chinese waters from Russia, the NK News vessel tracker and data from Marine Traffic shows.
Intermittent AIS tracking coverage around the Korean Peninsula often makes it difficult to see up-to-date positional information for the entire oil fleet simultaneously. However nearly every DPRK oil tanker broadcast its position this week, with queues forming at commonly used loading and offloading terminals.
The upcoming celebrations may help account for the tanker activity. North Korea is currently preparing for the 70th anniversary of the party, which will likely feature large-scale military parades, and the completion of numerous building projects across the country.
“There’s a possibility that it should be needed because economic activities are now ongoing in a lot of areas,” Lee Seog-ki, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade told NK News.
‘… there’s a possibility they intensively need energy to finish these activities’
“I suppose it will be used not only for the ceremony of the anniversary, but also for construction projects as they promised to complete a number of related projects by (October 10). Therefore, there’s a possibility they intensively need energy to finish these activities,” Lee added, though stressed it is difficult to know for certain where the oil is going.
Six of North Korea’s tankers – approximately one-third of their fleet – arrived near North Korea’s main oil terminal at Nampho in the last week.
The facility appears to be the DPRK’s largest (above ground) oil terminal, though ship positions indicate only two vessels can offload there at a time, with the remaining four waiting outside the West Sea Barrage.
Historical location data shows the four tankers in the queue all arrived from various foreign oil terminals between September 25 and 27.
According to Marine Traffic one of the vessels sailed from a port in Taiwan, a relatively unusual destination for a DPRK oil tanker, and a significant distance given the coastal vessel’s small size. The new location could be further evidence North Korea is expanding its oil procurement network.
Another ship waiting in line is the Namsan 8, the DPRK’s crude oil tanker that continually ferries between Nampho and Dalian. The small tanker’s journeys have remained frequent, despite a long running absence of crude oil from Chinese export figures.
One further tanker was also last seen approaching the west sea barrage on September 26. The 3500 tonne Chong Ma San was last seen heading to the DPRK from another Chinese terminal at Yangshan.
If fully loaded seven vessels could deliver over 16,000 tons of oil products to the DPRK in the coming days.
STILL BUSY ON THE RUSSIAN FRONT
Since at least August 2014, North Korea has dedicated the majority of its tanker fleet to Russian waters
Previous NK News analysis of DPRK oil tanker movements showed the vessels generally favoring terminals in the Russian Far East.
Since at least August 2014, North Korea has dedicated the majority of its tanker fleet to Russian waters. The short journey times between the DPRK’s eastern cities and relatively large Russian facilities likely helps offset the generally diminutive size of the tankers.
However, while a larger percentage of the fleet appears dedicated to delivering oil to the capital this month, the remaining tankers on the country’s eastern side also seem especially busy in September.
A further five oil tankers are currently broadcasting their positions at one of Vladivostok’s oil terminals. The Russian city is less than day’s sailing from the DPRK’s north eastern border, and a frequent destination for its tankers.
One of the tankers can be seen loading at the facility, while the other four are waiting nearby. This is the first time the NK News vessel tracker has registered so many tankers at the terminal simultaneously.
When they have finished loading oil products, between them they are capable of transporting 8,000 tons of oil products in a single journey. Previous observations indicate the tankers with four North Korean flags will likely deliver to various cities down the DPRK’s east coast.
The remaining ship – the Ocean Lucky – is flagged to Mongolia. North Korea’s tankers which are registered in other countries follow different routes to those sailing under DPRK flags. The Ocean Lucky’s flag allows it to sail very close to the South Korean coastline.
As a result North Korea uses the vessel to deliver oil products from Russian terminals to Nampho, passing very near South Korea’s Busan in the process. The route is subsequently shorter than the ones available to tankers with DPRK flags.
The NK News ship tracker shows a further oil tanker also making a delivery to the eastern coast, listing its destination port as Hungnam. The ship passed South Korea’s Pohang port two days ago, adding a further 2,600 tonnes to North Korea’s stockpile.
The 26,000 ton total is more than twice figure for the DPRK’s imports of gasoline, diesel, fuel oil and kerosene from China in August, and will occur in the span of two weeks.
Russian reporting of its fuel exports to the DPRK is patchy at best, with the 10,000 tonne September export representing 70 percent of recorded total exports in the first 11 months of 2014.
Additional reporting by Hyunbi Park
Featured image: Google Earth
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