A DPRK ship suspected of coal smuggling left North Korean waters earlier in the week, with satellite imagery of its likely port of origin showing a ship of similar physical characteristics docked at a coal terminal shortly before the vessel began its journey.

Previous NK Pro reports have tracked the North Korean-flagged K Morning’s odd journeys to waters near Shanghai, where the DPRK freighter appears to loiter often for weeks at a time before returning to North Korea seemingly without visiting any local ports or facilities.

But satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows a vessel matching the K Morning’s length and breadth at Nampho’s coal terminal approximately six hours before it began its most recent trip southward on August 26.

Special Delivery

UN Resolutions currently prohibit North Korea from exporting many of its raw materials, with coal and iron among the first to face UN restrictions.

But after the UN Security Council (UNSC) flatly prohibited member states from importing North Korean coal in August 2017, the DPRK turned to obscuring the origin of its cargos via ship-to-ship (STS) transfers and forged documentation.

Subsequent investigations from the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) noted how the DPRK’s coal smugglers employed numerous deceptive practices to move the sanctioned commodity and chose the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam as one of the primary STS transfer areas.

“The DPRK has switched most of its maritime-related coal trade to illegal ship-to-ship transfers as the primary means of circumventing paragraph 8 of resolution 2371,” the PoE wrote in their most recent report.

“Such illegal deliveries became regularized and systemic in 2018 with some of the largest vessels in the DPRK fleet documented as continuing to load coal at DPRK ports on a monthly basis before engaging in illegal ship-to-ship transfers, predominately in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

Good Morning

Although the K Morning has not been investigated by the PoE for coal smuggling, an advisory from the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and the U.S. Coast Guard included the ship in its list of “vessels that are believed to have exported North Korean coal since August 5, 2017.”

The K Morning’s recent arrival and departure from North Korea. Image: NK Pro ship tracker

The K Morning’s most recent movements tracked by terrestrial Auto Identification System (AIS) receivers in the region showed the ship returning to North Korea from its most recent — and apparently fruitless — voyage on August 18.

It then disappeared from tracking systems as it approached North Korean waters, only to begin transmitting again headed in the opposite direction on August 26.

Vessels typically do not broadcast their locations when in the DPRK’s waters, but a Planet Labs satellite image of the Nampho area captured around six hours before the K Morning’s first broadcast shows a vessel of similar length and breadth at the local coal terminal.

The K Morning’s recorded length and breadth. Image: Marine Traffic

According to its AIS transmissions, the DPRK cargo ship is 110 meters long with a width of around sixteen and a half meters, while photographs of the ship show a cargo hold separated by loading cranes.

While identifying vessels from medium-resolution satellite imagery is difficult to do conclusively, the vessel captured by Planet Labs on August 26 at around 02:00 UTC appears to have the same physical characteristics.

A vessel matching the K Morning’s characteristics on August 26 in Nampho. Image: Planet Labs

If the vessel pictured is the K Morning, then the ship has potentially headed out of North Korean waters on a southward heading carrying a consignment of sanctioned coal.

Although it’s also difficult to ascertain the direction of trade from satellite imagery alone, the PoE highlighted Nampho and its coal loading facility as a central hub for North Korea’s maritime-based smuggling efforts.

“A Member State provided imagery of certain DPRK ports, in particular Nampho, as hubs for suspected illegal activity,” the PoE wrote in their 2019 report.

Also included was “imagery highlighting the consistent use of Nampho port for loading prohibited exports of DPRK coal.”

The K Morning’s cargo bay separation and cranes. Image: Sergei Skriabin, Marine Traffic

Previous NK Pro reports have also highlighted the K Morning’s unusual AIS transmissions and movements, noting apparent behavior that the U.S. Treasury and Coast Guard consider to be “red flags.”

The NK Pro ship tracker showed the vessel’s most recent trip to Shanghai, where after loitering in the area for two weeks it sailed away after a gap in its AIS broadcasts.

Positional information, which is usually updated several times each day, showed a near-week-long gap between August 10 and August 16, with another shorter transmission blackout between August 16 and 17.

The extremely busy waters in the region also show that AIS signal coverage is very constant, with thousands of vessels broadcasting their locations as they pass through the area each day.

The North Korean ship departed the area shortly after the second gap, headed northwards towards the DPRK coast before disappearing again from tracking systems until August 26.

“North Korea-flagged merchant vessels often intentionally disable their AIS transponders to mask their movements. Similarly, vessels with which North Korea conducts ship-to-ship transfers will typically disable AIS to evade detection to facilitate illicit trade,” the U.S. Coast Guard and Treasury Department advisory reads.

“This tactic, whether employed by North Korea-flagged vessels or third-country vessels involved in trade with North Korea, is a red flag for potentially illicit activity, as it is a violation of international regulations and is often done to conceal the origin or destination of cargo associated with North Korea.”

The K Morning’s route in March this year. Image: NK Pro ship tracker

The NK Pro ship tracker also recorded part of an earlier K Morning voyage, with the DPRK freighter headed back towards Shanghai from an unknown location.

Although it’s difficult to ascertain the vessel’s location when it is not broadcasting to the AIS network, the North Korean ship’s direction seemed to indicate it was returning from southeast Asia, headed away from the Gulf of Tonkin.

Star Player

As is the case with many DPRK-flagged vessels that tend to exhibit unusual sailing patterns, the K Morning is also only a fairly recent North Korean acquisition.

The ship was not always domiciled in North Korea and previously passed through numerous Hong Kong-registered companies before being transferred to its current DPRK ownership.

These types of ownership patterns are often indicative of Pyongyang’s involvement, intended to disguise North Korean eventual ownership, though sanctions passed in 2016 made it more difficult for foreign nationals and companies to do business with parts of the DPRK’s maritime sector.

In their 2017 report, the PoE noted that the North Korean-flagged K Morning could be violating UN resolutions as it was registered to a foreign company, though this has since been remedied.

“The Panel found that 30 [DPRK]-flagged vessels were owned or operated by 37 foreign companies (in seven countries), in violation of paragraph 20 of resolution 2270 (2016),” the PoE wrote, listing the K Morning.

The K Morning also counts Sea Star Shipping among its former operators, which the PoE claimed was part of an infamous network of North Korea sanctions-evaders operating out of Hong Kong that worked on behalf of the long-sanctioned DPRK weapons trader Ocean Maritime Management.

While it remains challenging to conclusively prove sanctions evasion via open-source methods, the K Morning’s combination of possible coal loading, errant location transmissions, and former links to sanctions evasion networks indicate its recent journeys are unlikely to be completely above board.