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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Following a UN report on North Korean vessels spoofing signals to hide their identity and conduct shipments in violation of sanctions, a new report published Wednesday sheds light on the methods used to trick the international tracking system.
The report, published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) as part of its Project Sandstone series, delves into the case of the North Korean vessel Tae Yang and its attempts to spoof its identity as the Mongolian-flagged chemical tanker called the Krysper Singa.
RUSI, together with the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), conclude that the spoofing may be difficult to catch due to shortcomings in the tracking system’s automatic cleaning and correcting processes.
Vessels are required to transmit Automatic Identification System (AIS) information in order to avoid collisions at sea, though North Korean ships are known to try to get around the system to avoid detection while conducting shipments considered illegal under UN sanctions.
Previous reporting from NK News’s sister site NK Pro as well as Project Sandstone have revealed numerous instances of ships either turning off their AIS transponders or adopting more involved methods.
These include using “flags of convenience to disguise the nationality of its vessels, front companies to obscure ultimate ownership, and trusted foreign managers to operate vessels on its behalf,” Wednesday’s report says.
The latest method, on the other hand, involves ships such as the Tae Yang and the UN-designated Yuk Tung – detailed in the 2019 UN 1718 Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts (PoE) report – sending false information resulting in tracking systems recording the wrong ship.
In the case of the Tae Yang, the RUSI and CNS researchers found that its identity was being spoofed by broadcasting AIS signals using the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number for the Krysper Singa.
One initial drawback of the AIS system is that vessel operators manually enter their MMSI number, which are intended to be unique to each ship.
This results in, as described by Global Fishing Watch, multiple vessels appearing “as one vessel with a track that jumps back and forth across the ocean at impossible speeds” when broadcasting at the same time.
The RUSI report says that systems to automatically clean and correct data “are an essential feature of commercial AIS tracking systems… as they filter out anomalous or faulty transmissions.”
These systems fail, however, when they filter out anomalies and thus “inadvertently and incorrectly [linking] the real Krysper Singa to sanctions violations committed by the Tae Yang” in this case, it says.
The researchers found that the Tae Yang, identified using satellite imagery, has used the Krysper Singa’s MMSI number along with at least five other unregistered vessel names and two other International Maritime Organization (IMO) registered numbers.
Transactions tracked in the report focus on the Tae Yang broadcasting its identity as the Krysper Singa while loading coal in North Korea’s Nampho and Songnim ports and likely carrying out ship-to-ship (STS) transfers in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin in May this year.
The Tae Yang was in the 2019 PoE report said to have conducted STS coal transfers in the gulf in April and October 2018, after loading coal in those same ports in March and August that year.
“The case of the Tae Yang exemplifies some of the challenges authorities face in monitoring compliance with UN sanctions on North Korea,” the report concludes.
It also says that “absent satellite or open source imagery corresponding with the vessel’s AIS transmissions, it would have been very difficult to identify the Tae Yang as the vessel exporting coal from North Korea in December 2018, and likely in March 2019.”
According to Project Sandstone, North Korea’s “merchant shipping fleet continues to find ways to trade prohibited goods internationally.”
Researchers in publishing the report hope to “raise awareness about AIS spoofing mechanisms” and provide a “methodology that may help to identify other North Korean-linked ships using these same techniques to disguise their activities while hiding in plain sight.”
North Korean ambassador to the UN Kim Song has recently pushed back, however, against sanctions measures restricting the country’s activity at sea.
Speaking during a press conference on May 21 responding to the U.S. seizure of the Wise Honest ship – suspected of violating sanctions at sea – Kim said his country “has neither recognized or accepted sanctions resolution of the UN Security Council.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham