North Korea has consolidated ownership over its oil tanker fleet, analysis of the NK Pro vessel tracker and Equasis Maritime Databases shows, in a move that could signal increasing difficulties in registering its ships abroad.

The DPRK maintains a fleet of coastal oil tankers which shuttle between nearby terminals in neighboring China and Russia. Between them, the small tankers make regular trips and ferry oil products back to offloading facilities either in Nampho or along the DPRK’s eastern coast.

Previous NK Pro analysis showed that while some of the tankers were clearly North Korean, others maintained a degree of separation: they were registered to companies in China or Hong Kong and used different flags.

Obfuscating the tankers’ links to North Korea had at least one practical advantage, allowing for some of the freighters to sail within South Korean waters when on the relatively long journey around the Peninsula – a more viable option than by attempting to move oil products overland.

North Korea has no domestic oil pipelines, while road and rail infrastructure is often unreliable. The unfavorable conditions would likely make moving oil by ship from Russia to Nampho – the country’s largest oil terminal – a more attractive option.

In contrast, the North’s tankers which more clearly advertised their DPRK ownership eschewed these longer routes or, if necessary, gave the Peninsula a much wider berth through international waters.

A Mongolian-flagged tanker very near the South Korean coast, contrasted with the longer route (red line) North Korean tankers must take I Image: Marine Traffic

But in recent months the practice seems to have ended, with North Korea drawing its tanker fleet closer to its chest.

As a possible consequence of recent UN measures which have made it more difficult for DPRK vessels to use purchase flags from other countries, nearly all the DPRK’s active oil carrying ships are now registered as North Korean, and only a small number continue to have ties to foreign companies.

There are only three exceptions: the Ocean Lucky, a small freighter which last had a Mongolian flag but has not appeared on tracking systems since July 2016, and the newest, regular visitors to the North’s oil terminals, and two vessels owned by a Chinese company called Dalian Jiajia which routinely deliver oil to the DPRK.

But even Jiajia is apparently not immune to North Korea’s changing stance, as a third vessel previously belonging to the Dalian-based company was transferred to a North Korean company this month.

But the clearer links to North Korea have apparently done little to stifle business abroad. The NK Pro vessel tracker shows the DPRK’s fleet is very active, with seven tankers leaving the Russian far-east in February.

The freighters off the DPRK’s eastern coast are similarly busy, with five tankers headed to North Korea from Chinese terminals in recent weeks.