Satellite imagery from Planet Labs and vessel location tracking analyzed by NK Pro show a DPRK ship recently moving between North Korean and Chinese bulk handling ports, facilities capable of processing sanctioned materials like iron and coal.

While North Korean vessels broadcasting their locations in foreign ports is not uncommon, DPRK ships using their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders within the DPRK’s own ports is unusual.

But the North Korean-flagged Jin Hung 8 has broadcast its location moving between Longkou, in northeast China, and Haeju, a DPRK port relatively near the Northern Limit Line (NLL).

Satellite imagery of both ports shows they are capable of handling sanctioned commodities, though identifying specific cargos from tracking information and satellite photography remains challenging.

Nonetheless, when combined, the two types of information paint a picture of a North Korean ship ferrying between a large bulk-handling Chinese facility and a North Korean port which has previously acted as the point of origin for a large scale smuggling operation.

To and fro

The 4870-tonne Jin Hung 8 briefly broadcast its location in North Korean waters twice in recent months, once leaving the Haeju area on April 22, with another brief burst of signals on Tuesday, this time docked in the DPRK’s southern port.

It is the first time the ship has signaled any location data within the DPRK since 2016, when more complete coverage was available around the North’s main port at Nampho.

The Jin Hung 8 leaving the Haeju area on April 22 | Photo: NK Pro ship tracker.

Such broadcasts to the terrestrial vessel tracking network are now rare within North Korea, as they require a land-based transmitter with limited range and access to the internet.

Both appearances are bookended by broadcasts in China’s Longkou port, a large facility a short distance to the west of North Korea across the Yellow Sea, and on both occasions, the ship spent time loitering near the Chinese port before heading the berth.

The Jin HUng 8’s position on May 2 according to the NK Pro ship tracker. Image: NK Pro ship tracker

Imagery captured by Planet Labs on May 2 shows a vessel in a position which corresponds with the coordinates broadcast by the Jin Hung 8’s AIS transponder.

While the photograph is not high resolution, shadows in the middle of the vessel could indicate the hold is open and is in the process of loading or unloading cargo.

A vessel in the same position as the Jin Hung 8 at the same time | Photo: Planet Labs

As previous NK Pro reports have noted, the area seems well equipped to cargos like coal and iron, with piles of what is most likely coal typically piled up nearby.

In the Planet Labs image, coal and other bulk cargos surround the area where the Jin Hung 8 docked, though the ship has also previously called in at the northmost berth, where large piles of what may be iron ore are also located.

On its return trip, the Jin Hung 8 returned to Haeju, another port where coal spoils appear piled nearby, though where other bulk products have also been shipped from.

The ship’s most recent broadcast shows it apparently headed back toward Longkou, implying the route is becoming an increasingly regular one.

The Jin Hung 8’s position on May 14 in Haeju| Photo: NK Pro ship tracker

According to the UN Panel of Experts’ (PoE) 2017 report, the Haeju area was used to load a shipment of sanctioned iron ore onto a vessel called the Jie Shun in order to conceal a second cargo of rocket-propelled grenades.

“Departing Haeju port on 23 July 2016, the vessel passed through the Straits of Malacca and was interdicted in Egyptian territorial waters south of the Suez Canal,” the PoE wrote.

The vessel was later interdicted by the Egyptian authorities, revealing how networks facilitated by Chinese nationals moved illicit cargo via the North Korean port all the way to the Middle East.

A vessel aligned with the Jin Hung 8’s position on May 14| Photo: Planet Labs

Higher resolution, historical satellite imagery also shows other vessels in Haeju loading or unloading numerous bulk products, often in the same place or immediately adjacent to the area where the Jin Hung 8 was photographed.

A 2016 image of Haeju port’s coal handling area, with coal likely being loaded onto the vessel on the easternmost berth| Photo: Google Earth

Although ascertaining the exact cargo is difficult from external sources alone, the DPRK traffic between two bulk handling facilities comes in the context of a sanctions regime that prohibits a wide array of cargo types which are typically processed by these ports.

UN member states are currently prohibited from importing DPRK coal, iron, gold, silver, nickel, copper, titanium, vanadium, and rare earth minerals.

The most recent sanctions passed in December 2017 also added North Korean produced timber, earth, stone, and magnesia to the list of prohibited commodities.

While North Korea’s coal smuggling operations currently seem more complex than direct transfers between two ports — involving faked documentation and transhipment through third countries — it would not be the first time China has allowed prohibited DPRK raw materials to flow through its borders.

A 2017 report from NK Pro highlighted how two DPRK ships had sailed into a Chinese port, with satellite imagery revealing they opened their cargo holds, indicating that some trade had occurred.

Beijing responded to the report by claiming that the North Korean ships were dangerously low on supplies and had to be allowed entrance on humanitarian grounds, despite them being only a short distance from their home port of Nampho.

Edited by Oliver Hotham