December 07, 2023

Why the rise of AI and space radar is bad news for North Korean smugglers

Advances in artificial intelligence make it possible to detect illicit activity from space, even in the dead of night

One year ago, a French frigate in the East China Sea captured images of a North Korea-linked oil transfer between two ships in the dead of night. The photos show two oilers side-by-side on still, pitch-black waters, with thick tethers drooping between them. Deckhands worked under the glare of pale-green flood lights to fasten a heavy oil line between the two and quickly start pumping before daybreak.

Such nighttime transfers are a tried-and-true tactic for Kim Jong Un’s oil smugglers, who understand that most satellites whizzing by overhead can’t see them at night.