North Korean ship sails with Kiribati flag, loiters near Shanghai
The case is the latest in a series of unusual DPRK vessel broadcasts and voyages
A North Korean vessel headed to China recently broadcast its location with a Kiribati flag, the NK Pro ship tracker showed, in the latest occurrence of DPRK vessels traveling while signaling unusual information to tracking networks.
The DPRK-registered So Baek Su appeared on international tracking systems for the first time in nearly a year at the start of October, though apparently sailing under Kiribati’s colors.
If accurate, the registration change would breach UN resolutions, which prohibit North Korea-owned vessels from being registered in other countries.
Although the Kiribati registry does provide documentation and flagging services to other countries – a practice known as using a flag of convenience – the UN’s restrictions have made it more difficult for the DPRK’s fleet to purchase foreign certification.
The DPRK-owned ship could instead be using an old registration and broadcasting with incorrect or fraudulent information in order to throw off tracking systems.
The So Baek Su began broadcasting near China on October 2 and appeared to sail near the Chinese coastal city of Dalian, though did not advertise its location in the port city, the NK Pro ship tracker indicates.
The North Korea registered vessel – also broadcasting its name as O Bae S – then headed southward before disappearing from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) network.
Three days later, the So Baek Su reappeared near the Chinese coast, though this time near Shanghai on October 6, before again disappearing from tracking systems.
It was last seen headed northward again, headed away from the islands near Shanghai, seemingly again without having made use of any local ports and facilities.
The So Baek Su’s supposed-new flag and odd movement patterns tally with those of other DPRK vessels that have been moving near the Chinese coast in recent months.
NK Pro previously reported on another DPRK-vessel which was apparently sailing “stateless” and not broadcasting any national registration information, though which at other times also signaled with a Cambodian flag.
Much like the So Baek Su, the seemingly stateless Kum Gang San 2 also loitered in waters near Shanghai, highlighting a potentially new characteristic of North Korea’s sanctions evasion activity in the area.
North Korean vessels are known to manipulate their AIS information, changing names and other data which can be manually inputted by the ship’s crew.
When combined with other evasion techniques, like physically painting over or occluding vessel identifiers and switching off tracking transmitters, manipulating AIS data can make North Korean ships harder to detect.
According to the UN Panel of Experts’ (PoE) most recent report, the area around Shanghai may also be a favored DPRK coal smuggling zone.
“The Member State provided to the Panel images showing vessels loaded with coal off the Ningbo-Zhoushan port area, which it identified as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-associated vessels,” the PoE wrote.
The UN Panel noted that numerous DPRK or DPRK-linked vessels appeared to be loitering in the area with some frequency, while imagery also showed coal being transferred between ships at sea.
China indicated that it was not interested in investigating the possible breaches, so the apparent number of North Korea-affiliated vessels in the area appears relatively constant.
Edited by James Fretwell
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