Sierra Leone’s official shipping registry employs several Chinese nationals involved in North Korea’s weapons smuggling networks, authorizing them to register foreign vessels under the Sierra Leonean flag, an investigation by NK News can reveal.
The discovery highlights North Korea’s ongoing employment of trusted third parties in its attempt to camouflage illicit activities and circumvent UN restrictions designed to curtail its weapons of mass destruction program.
Under the auspices of the Sierra Leone Ministry of Transport and Aviation, the country’s shipping registry has representatives in nearly twenty countries around the world. Between them, agents in the Americas, Middle East, and Asia have issued Sierra Leonean flags to over 500 ships.
According to the NK Pro ship tracker, over a dozen suspected North Korean vessels have flown the Sierra Leonean flag in recent years, though its use has become less common since 2016.
While the practice – known as using a Flag of Convenience (FOC) – is widely used in the maritime industry, the DPRK has employed the technique to disguise many of its suspect vessels. However, UN sanctions issued in 2016 prohibit foreign entities from offering vessel registration services to North Korean-owned or controlled vessels.
The discovery that individuals involved in North Korea’s illicit shipping networks are agents of Sierra Leone’s shipping registry could also help explain reports last year following the impounding of the sanctioned Sierra Leonean-flagged vessel Jin Teng – a ship held by the Philippine authorities following Resolution 2270 was adopted in March last year.
NK News was not able to contact the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration (SLMARAD), which gives a UK number, while the Ministry of Transport and Aviation declined to comment.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
According to the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration organization’s website and official documentation, the Dalian and Shanghai-headquartered Changqing Dong, Tiehe Lyu, Youmin Wang, Shengli Zhou are authorized by the government body to offer registration services for foreign vessels from their offices in China.
Changqing Dong and Tiehe Lu are Dalian-based business partners well known to the UNSC Panel of Experts (PoE), with their companies repeatedly involved in North Korean weapons proliferation incidents. Tiehe Lu and Tiehe Lyu are different transliterations of the same Chinese name.
When contacted by NK News, the Changqing Dong listed on the SLMARAD website denied being the same Changqing Dong identified by the Panel of Experts reports and company records, despite sharing an address and a mobile phone number with Tiehe Lyu, whose LinkedIn confirms is the same Lyu identified by the PoE.
Dong also denied any involvement with North Korean entities, while Lu requested that questions be sent over email but did not respond.
Despite his denial, Hong Kong company registration documents and PoE reports show that Changqing Dong has, in the past, been the owner and director of Sea Star Ship Co, V-Star Ships Ltd and Dalian Sea Glory Shipping: all companies previously identified by the PoE for their involvement in North Korea’s illicit shipping and weapons smuggling networks. Together, they have owned and managed a large network of suspect ships connected to DPRK entities.
Hong Kong company documents and the UN PoE’s investigations also confirm that Lu and Mintian Fan were Dong’s business partners in all three businesses, sharing an office in central Dalian.
The most recent PoE report identified Mintian Fan as a key operator in the Jie Shun case, a vessel which sailed from the DPRK loaded with thousands of North Korean rocket-propelled grenades hidden under a cargo of sanctioned limonite.
Meanwhile, the same Lu listed on the SLMARAD website as sharing an office and mobile phone number with Dong states on his Linkedin page that he has worked for Sea Star Ship Co as a Marine Manager, the same company previously joint-owned by Dong.
Located in the same room as Lu and Dong’s SLMARAD office is Harmonized Resources Shipping Management Co. (Dalian), which has previously been the international safety manager of the Sierra Leonean-flagged Safe Way vessel, and is the current commercial manager of the Panamanian-flagged Harmony Source.
Several Chinese-language job advertisements for Harmonized Resources Shipping give Dong and Lu’s SLMARAD phone number and address, while adverts state the company offers shipping and FOC services for foreign companies.
Both the Harmony Source and the Safe Way vessels managed by Harmonized Resources Shipping were previously administered by Dong, Lu and Fan’s network of companies, suggesting that new shell companies have been created to disguise their real owners.
The Safe Way’s historical positions reveal the ship was a regular visitor to the DPRK throughout 2015, while vessel inspection records show the Safe Way was renamed and reflagged from Cambodia to Sierra Leone between August 2015 and April 2016.
UN Resolution 2270 first recommended that member states be aware of North Korean suspicious flagging practices in March 2016, though the measures were not strengthened until the later Resolution 2321 in November that same year.
Another SLMARAD listed officer is Shengli Zhou, who gives his address on the website as Mingshi Fortune Centre, 20 Gangwan Street, Dalian, and shares an office, phone and fax number with numerous Chinese companies that have ties to North Korean ships. One of these companies, Victory International Ship Management, was previously the manager of Dong and Lu’s Harmony Source vessel.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO LUXUN
Chinese language pages for Harmonized Resources Shipping show it is located in room 1802 of the Success Building at 72 Luxun Lu, the same room and Dalian address that Dong and Lu give on the SLMARAD website.
However, at least two other companies involved in North Korea’s smuggling network – both also identified by the PoE – have been registered at 72 Luxun Lu in the bustling Chinese port city.
One of these companies – CM Chartering – is the former owner of the now scrapped South Hill 2 vessel, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury and the UN for its links North Korea. Dong and Lu’s Sea Star Ship Company had also been the international safety manager of the South Hill 2 vessel.
The second company, Liaoning Foreign Trade Foodstuffs Shipping – which shares a phone number and address with CM Chartering – was the previous manager of the now seized Jie Shun vessel interdicted in Egypt last year.
North Korea’s Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) – a weapons smuggler operating under the Ministry of Land and Marine Transport – and another two companies involved in the country’s illicit shipping networks have operated from offices next door at 32 Wu Wu Lu, Dalian.
THE SAILORS OF PANAMA
According to Panamanian registration documents, Changqing Dong, Mintian Fan and Tiehe Lu were also officials of Hua Heng Shipping, another company involved in the Jie Shun incident. Hua Heng previously administered the South Hill 2 vessel, owned by CM Chartering and ISM managed by Sea Star Ship.
Hua Heng was previously identified as a key node in company networks operated by Hiroshi Kasatsugu, a Japanese national identified by the PoE as a major player in North Korea’s illicit networks.
Meanwhile, another company owned and controlled by Dong, Fan and Lu – V-Star Ships – was mentioned in the Singaporean trial of Chinpo Shipping as being involved in an attempt to ship weapons from Cuba to North Korea.
Lu and Dong’s list of dubious accolades does not end there. Another of their companies, Dalian Sea Glory Shipping Co. was the international safety manager of the North Korean-crewed Light vessel which was suspected of carrying weapons in 2011.
When hailed by a U.S. warship in May that year, the vessel’s captain refused to be inspected and instead returned to North Korea. According to the PoE’s 2012 report, “after this incident, the Light was transferred to another ship manager recently incorporated in Hong Kong, Sea Star Ship Company Limited, and entered the registry of Sierra Leone.”
V IS FOR VICTORY
Shengli Zhou’s Victory International Ship Management, which had previously managed the Harmony Source vessel, also appears to have been the international safety manager for the DPRK-flagged Jang Gyong when it was inspected in August in 2016 and the manager of the Kum Un San 3 in 2015, shortly before it was passed to North Korea’s Dawn Marine Management.
Zhou denied any links to North Korean shipping agents when contacted by NK News, stating over email that the Jang Gyong was transferred to North Korea after Victory International’s association with the ship, adding that his company had only provided safety management services and that he, therefore, had no knowledge of whether they were sold or passed to North Korea.
But another company in the same office and with the same contact numbers as Zhou was the owner of the Kum Un San 3 vessel.
Zhou also claimed that Tokyo’s Port State Control and China’s Maritime Safety Authority were in error when they claimed Victory International was the manager of the DPRK flagged Jang Gyong and stated that he would contact both organizations about the mistake.
Despite Mr. Zhou’s denial, historical positions dating back to 2013 for both vessels reveal frequent visits to North Korean ports.
The last suspect individual identified by the NK News investigation is Youmin Wang, who is connected to Chinese companies that own and manage at least one other North Korean vessel. Wang’s listed SLMARAD email is the same as that given by a company called Foresight Marine on ship inspection databases.
Foresight Marine and Sino Repute currently own and manage the North Korean-flagged Chang Xin 9. Previously operated by North Korea’s Korea O-il Trade Corp, the Chang Xin 9 was passed or sold to East Bright International Shipping before moving to Foresight Marine and Sino Repute.
Another vessel previously owned and managed by Foresight Marine, the Zhen Bang, was reflagged from North Korea to Sierra Leone in late 2015, before being reflagged again to Tanzania in 2016.
When contacted by NK News, a representative of Foresight Marine said the ships were owned by Chinese nationals, and that it did not have any dealings with North Korean entities. The representative added that the Sierre Leone registry did not accept applications from DPRK vessels as of last year.
However, historical positions for both vessels also show they have also made frequent trips to North Korea over the past years, while NK News has continued to track several suspect Sierra Leonean vessels.
THE INSIDE MAN
North Korea’s placement of third party intermediaries within key roles in shipping registries is not without precedent. In the early 2000s several Singaporean nationals played a critical role in “managing registries for key flags of convenience” that provided services to the DPRK, Andrea Berger, Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) wrote in 2015.
Increased scrutiny on North Korea’s flagging practices and two UN Resolutions have drawn the net tighter around the North’s merchant fleet, meaning that it remains unclear whether the Sierra Leonean registry will continue to accept ships closely linked to the DPRK.
But while these measures may have deterred some registries from offering services to DPRK vessels, North Korea continues to develop evasion mechanisms and may have recently started using fake flags and forged documentation.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Photo: Annabel Symington