A Vietnam-registered oil tanker arrived at a North Korean terminal the day before the U.S. and the DPRK kicked off their second summit in Hanoi, a joint investigation from NK Pro and Washington-based think tank C4ADS can reveal.

As U.S. President Donald Trump and his high-level staffers thanked their hosts in Vietnam on the day before the summit, data collected by a maritime domain awareness platform showed a 5000-tonne Vietnamese owned tanker in the DPRK’s primary oil handling facility on the country’s west coast.

If the tanker — called the Viet Tin 01 — did offload oil products at the DPRK oil terminal, the transfer would likely push against UN resolutions which cap the North’s refined oil product imports and place reporting requirements on the exporters.

The appearance of a foreign-owned tanker within North Korean waters is also highly unusual, and runs contrary to the DPRK’s current preferred method of importing the restricted fuels by engaging in transfers directly between ships at sea.

Additional NK Pro analysis shows regular traffic from vessels owned by UN-sanctioned companies or embedded in the DPRK’s smuggling networks to Vietnam in the months running up to the summit, raising questions about Hanoi’s commitment to its sanctions enforcement obligations.

The unusual traffic also serves as a reminder that the DPRK likely remains committed circumventing sanctions and has continued to wear away at the bedrock of Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign despite easing tensions and forward diplomatic momentum.

Bad timing

As Trump made for the Vietnamese capital aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was already on the ground in Hanoi, meeting with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

Pompeo was thanking his host and laying the final groundwork for the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, where the next stages of the DPRK’s denuclearization process are likely to be discussed and potentially agreed upon.

International sanctions have been central to U.S. policy on North Korea, following the DPRK’s aggressive weapons testing schedule in 2017, and Washington has worked hard to push long-reluctant countries in the region and around the world to live up to their UN commitments.

But while Kim Jong Un was winding his way through China towards the summit via train, an oil tanker owned by the Ho Chi Minh City-based Viet Trust Shipping Corporation was headed in the opposite direction and nearing the DPRK’s western coastline.

And even though ship tracking information can sometimes be erroneous or spoofed, the Vietnamese tanker began exhibiting unusual behavior long before it reached the North’s shores.

The Viet Tin 01 in Singapore | Photo: C4ADS

The journey

According to the maritime data, which compiles both satellite and terrestrial ship positions, the Viet Tin 01 tanker began its journey near a Singaporean oil storage facility owned by Vopak Terminal Singapore on January 31.

But even before the 5000-tonne tanker had left Singaporean waters, on 2 February 2019 at 1412 UTC, the vessel reported a destination of “Namp’o North Korea” before changing it to “Kaohsiung” around an hour and 40 minutes later at 1552 UTC.

The Viet Tin 01 departing Singapore | Photo: C4ADS

Information about vessel headings and points of origin is entered manually and DPRK bound ships often purposefully occlude or misreport this data to stop it broadcasting to Auto Identification System (AIS) tracking networks.

The data then indicates the Viet Tin 01 sailed for Kaohsiung on the southwestern side of Taiwan, though it did not appear to call in at any ports or facilities in the area, instead loitering a short distance from the Taiwanese coast.

The Viet Tin 01 traveling to Taiwan | Photo: C4ADS

After around 20 hours, the small tanker once again changed its destination information to broadcast “Daesan S. Korea”, before sailing northward towards the Korean peninsula.

The Viet Tin 01 loitering near Taiwan | Photo: C4ADS

The Viet Tin 01 then headed past South Korea and stopped a short distance westwards from the DPRK’s Nampho port on February 24, where it disappeared from tracking systems for approximately two days.

The tanker briefly appeared again two days later at the Nampho oil terminal, a likely indicator it had deactivated its location broadcasting equipment in the intervening period, though briefly switched it back on at the North Korean facility at 00:30 UTC on Feb 26.

The Viet Tin 01’s location broadcasts in North Korean waters | Photo: C4ADS

A satellite image from Planet Labs taken shortly after the Viet Tin 01 pinged its location at the DPRK oil terminal also seems to show a vessel matching the tanker’s dimensions at the North Korean facility.

Highlighted vessel matches the dimensions of the Viet Tin 01 | Photo: Planet Labs

Another, higher resolution image taken slightly later at 0500 UTC by Planet Labs’ Sky Sat platform shows a green decked vessel in the same position, which bears a strong resemblance to photographs of the Viet Tin 01 visible on ship tracking websites.

While it’s difficult to gauge the direction and exact content of trade from vessel tracking information and satellite imagery alone, the irregularities in the Viet Tin 01’s voyage tally with many of the smuggling techniques unearthed by the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) in their 2018 report.

A vessel in the same position as the previous Planet Labs image. The ship has a green deck similar to that seen in photographs | Photo: Planet Labs

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea made use of a combination of multiple evasion techniques, routes and deceptive shipping tactics, including manipulation of the Automatic Identification System, loitering, voyage deviations and fraudulent documentation,” the PoE wrote.

The Viet Tin 01’s historical data further highlights the unusual nature of the journey, which appears to be the tanker’s first trip to northeast Asia, a significant deviation from its usual travel patterns.

At the time of writing, neither the Viet Tin 01’s operator nor the owner of the Singaporean oil storage facility had replied to requests for comment on the shipment.

The Viet Tin 01’s voyage history, showing just one trip to northeast Asia | Photo: C4ADS

Fair trade

Longer term analysis of shipping traffic to Vietnam also shows the regular movement of vessels owned by designated companies or others embedded in North Korea’s smuggling networks headed to or from the southeast Asian nation.

While the visits seemed less frequent in the new year than in the last quarter of 2018, the most recent came at the beginning of February when the Belize-flagged Xin Yang 688 broadcast its location in Vietnam’s Hai Phong port at the end of January.

The NK Pro ship tracker picked up the vessel at what looked to be a berth capable of handling bulk commodities on January 31 and it remained in the region until Feb 2.

The Xin Yang 688 in Hai Phong in February | Photo: NK Pro ship tracker

Unlike oil exports to the DPRK, which are merely capped, North Korea is flatly prohibited from exporting the majority of its raw materials, including coal and iron.

According to the Equasis Maritime database, the 5300-tonne general cargo ship is operated by the UN and U.S. sanctioned Huaxing Shipping Hong Kong, which was previously used another of its vessels called the Asia Bridge 1 to smuggle North Korea coal to Vietnam in breach of UN resolutions.

“(Huaxin is the) ship and commercial manager of the Asia Bridge 1… (which) was instructed on October 19, 2017 by Huaxin Shipping to make preparations for entry into Nampo, DPRK to receive a shipment of coal bound for Vietnam,” the UN said in a press release accompanying the sanctions in March last year.

“The ‘Asia Bridge 1” was instructed by an unidentified employee of Huaxin Shipping Ltd. to make preparations to receive 8,000 metric tons of coal and then sail to Cam Pha, Vietnam.”

Another vessel called the Lucky Star which was formerly by Huaxin and another UN-sanctioned company called Weihai World Shipping Freight also broadcast its location in the same area in early October last year, though it did not advertise its location in any port facilities.

The Lucky Star broadcasting near Vietnam in October | Photo: NK Pro ship tracker

Weihai World Shipping Freight was designated along with Huaxin for similar breaches of the UN’s restrictions on North Korean mineral smuggling, though it instead delivered the sanctioned coal to Malaysia while claiming Vietnam was the shipment’s intended destination.

In the intervening months, a regular flow of vessels with ties to a who’s who of well-known sanctions-evaders and weapon smugglers have broadcast their locations in or around Vietnam.

The list also includes a North Korean-flagged ship which stopped broadcasting its location as it approached Vietnamese waters in January, listing its eventual destination as Saigon, and another formerly DPRK-flagged ship that exhibited similar behavior a month earlier.

While the exact nature of their visits remains difficult to ascertain from open sources alone, once again the shipments seem to broadly reflect patterns already established by the UN Panel of Experts, who investigated numerous sanctions breaching coal shipments to Vietnam throughout 2017.

And although none of the ships traveling to Vietnamese waters in recent months were on the UN’s blacklist or prohibited from port entry, their close ties to UN-sanctioned entities and smugglers should raise red flags in both Washington and Hanoi.

Taken as a whole, if the unusual vessel behavior is linked to illicit trade, it highlights the DPRK’s well-oiled sanctions evasions programs and indicates how Kim Jong Un could be entering the upcoming negotiations on firmer economic footing than Washington might publicly admit.

Additional reporting and analysis by Lucas Kuo at C4ADS

Edited by Oliver Hotham