Sailing on a North Korean ship is a risky proposition, with the DPRK’s rickety fleet failing safety and environmental inspections more often than most other countries, figures from the Port State Control Committee (PSC) and NK News analysis show.
This year’s inspection records also indicate that not all ports inspect the same ratios of North Korean vessels as others, and that North Korean flagged ships outside of Russian and Chinese ports are an increasingly rare sight.
The Tokyo based PSC released reports on inspections and detentions every year, claiming to inspect nearly 70% of all over 24,000 individual ship visits in ports around Asia in 2014.
Ships with North Korean flags mainly visiting ports across China and Russia make up only a small fraction of these, with fewer than 150 merchant ships currently active. Nonetheless the DPRK’s creaking ships compare poorly to those of many other countries.
So far in 2015, DPRK flagged ships have been subject to inspection 244 times, with 29 detentions. The detention rate is actually a little down on last year’s 16 percent, which placed North Korea in fifth place for most detained vessels.
The company the DPRK keeps in that top five is also noteworthy. The DPRK trails only Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Jamaica and Mongolia. The first and fourth spots are very common flags of convenience (FOCs), often employed by ship owners specifically to circumvent safety and environmental laws.
The 244 inspections on North Korean ships this year found nearly 2000 deficiencies
Over the course of the previous decade, the North Korean flag itself was a popular FOC. However its use fell out of favor as incidents of smuggling illicit materials by DPRK ships became more common.
The 244 inspections on North Korean ships this year found nearly 2000 deficiencies and no inspection on a North Korean ship so far this year did not find at least one problem. This also holds true for last year when the DPRK recorded a very similar number of infractions.
Overall, with an average of 10 infractions per inspection, North Korea places fifth when compared to other countries, though this number does not tell the whole story.
The four countries above the DPRK were inspected no more than five times by ports under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo PSC, against the 205 inspections on North Korean ships in 2014. To all intents and purposes, North Korean ships lead the field in this regard.
The numbers likely represent an accurate reflection of the general age and condition of the North Korean merchant fleet. It’s not uncommon to for the DPRK to keep vessels in service for over thirty years, with generally low levels of maintenance, or until they sink below the waves.
In the first 11 months of this year, no North Korean ships were inspected in ports outside of Russia or China, and looking PSCs databases for other parts of the world reveal a similar trend. There were so far a total of zero inspections of ships with North Korean flags by countries in Latin America, Africa or any other countries in Asia.
DPRK ships are also blacklisted from many ports in Europe and the U.S., so are seen extremely infrequently in these waters. The last ship to get with 500km of European waters sailing under a North Korean flag illegally attempted to load oil from a hijacked terminal and was subsequently boarded by U.S. commandos.
Of course, ships are not guaranteed an inspection upon an arrival at a port, so it’s possible DPRK flags ports and sail away without anyone coming on board to have a look around. This was evidenced in Japan this year when a sanctioned North Korean vessel spent two days in the Japanese port of Sakaiminato.
In the first 11 months of this year, no North Korean ships were inspected in ports outside of Russia or China
However the NK News vessel tracker is generally consistent with these numbers, indicating North Korean flagged vessels sailing to ports outside of Russia and China do so only infrequently. The only currently confirmed DPRK ship outside of Asian waters is the Mu Du Bong, a sanctioned vessel impounded by Mexican authorities nearly a year and half ago.
These ships, combined with transhipment hubs in large Chinese ports likely account for how North Korea sources products – legitimate or otherwise – from more distant countries.
One further option also exists: Ships are also able to simply switch off their tracking equipment. Ordinarily, this should only be done in cases where broadcasting location endangers the life of the crew, such as in cases of piracy, however numerous North Korean vessels go long periods without appearing on international tracking systems.
CHINA AND RUSSIA
Within China and Russia, NK News analysis shows that North Korean ships are more closely scrutinised in some ports than others.
Data from Marine Traffic shows that while the large majority of North Korean ships head to Chinese ports to trade, inspections are not evenly distributed across them, even when factoring in traffic volumes.
By far the most troublesome port for DPRK ships to visit in China is Yantai, across the Yellow Sea from the DPRK. Local authorities carried out 74 inspections so far this year, despite North Korean ships heading more frequently to ports at Dandong, Dalian, Weihai and Qingdao.
There are currently no vessels from North Korea’s fleet that are visiting the port, though there is relatively heavy traffic to other, nearby ones.
Dandong port on the Chinese – North Korean border is a distant second, inspecting 39 ships so far this year. Between them, Yantai and Dandong account for nearly 50 percent of Chinese inspections.
Dalian, the largest port in the area and the closest major port to the DPRK lagged behind many of its peers, carrying out just nine inspections so far this year on DPRK vessels.
Despite the difference in trade volumes and vessel traffic, Russia carried out 25 percent of total inspections on North Korean ships, with Vladivostok port being the second trickiest port for DPRK sailors to sail through without inspection.
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Featured Image: Hui Fan Port of Rason North Korea by Ray Cunningham on 2013-06-22 15:42:16