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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korea has long been known to reflag and shuffle ownership and management of its vessels as part of efforts to evade international sanctions, and a new report published Thursday offers new evidence as to how these actions are being facilitated.
The report, published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) as part of its Project Sandstone series, spotlights three Dalian-based Chinese individuals and their positions as powerful maritime surveyors with connections to North Korea.
It follows another report released in February exposing links between other individuals such as Li Anshan to Chinese state-owned companies and revealing the scope of their assistance with Pyongyang’s illicit networks.
Fan Mintian, Dong Changqing, and Zhang Qiao were found in RUSI’s latest report to be working with and directly operating companies entrusted by Panamanian and Mongolian flag-administration authorities to survey ships and authorize various certificates.
They were also found to have “operated across a wide number of roles in the maritime industry,” the report said, which has directly allowed some North Korean ships to “avoid scrutiny and continue operation as foreign-flagged vessels.”
These roles included “from directly owning and managing vessels, to the provision of international safety management services, as well as flagging and certification services required to operate a foreign-flagged vessel in international waters.”
The report concluded that their positions with these organizations may continue to provide “an avenue for North Korean-linked vessels to obtain flags of convenience and other maritime services prohibited under UN Security Council resolutions.”
Fan, Dong, and Zhang have all previously been mentioned in UN Panel of Experts (PoE) reports on North Korean sanctions evasion, and activities at sea of their related ships and companies have been detailed in numerous NK News and NK Pro reports.
RUSI found that Fan and Dong have worked as surveyors for an organization authorized by Panama called Panama Maritime Documentation Services (PMDS), and have provided various certificates to North Korean-linked ships.
Former and possibly current North Korean-owned ships which RUSI found received PMDS certifications include the Hua Fu, the Benevolence 2, and the Dong Fang Shen Long.
Fan and Dong were previously caught up in a North Korean illicit shipping scandal when the vessel Light, managed by their company Dalian Sea Star Ship Technology, was “suspected of transporting North Korean missile technology to Myanmar.”
PMDS was also found to share an address and other contact details in Dalian with Fan and Dong’s companies, as well as another flag-administrator authorized by Mongolia called International Maritime Survey Association (IMSA), which was created by Zhang Qiao.
Notably, the RUSI report found that Zhang registered IMSA just days after a Singaporean national named Leonard Lai was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, and that Zhang’s subsequent purchase of one of Lai’s sanctioned ships suggested an attempt at coordinated continuity despite the legal action.
According to the report, registration information for IMSA’s website suggests it is operating under another of Zhang’s companies, Bene Star Shipping and Trading, which the 2017 PoE report found “is a key node connecting multiple companies linked to the [DPRK] and vessels associated with the Ocean Maritime Management Company.”
With Zhang wielding the power to flag ships with the Mongolian flag since IMSA’s inception in 2015, the RUSI report found that many carrying this flag with direct links to Zhang entities have made regular visits to North Korean ports.
And as PMDS and IMSA were discovered to share some of the same official contact details, one ship was even found to have received PMDS certification “on the same day as Zhang’s Baili Shipping and Trading became the ship’s commercial manager.”
The report further suggested that previous links by Fan, Dong, and Zhang to the high-profile case of the vessel Jie Shun add to the likelihood that they continue to aid Pyongyang’s networks by offering their flagging and certification services.
The Jie Shun was interdicted in Egypt in 2016 with 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades on board hidden under a consignment of DPRK iron ore.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: File photo