If you were to turn on the news channels on television in recent months, you would have realized that the UN has turned up the heat on North Korea with sanctions. A sanction is a penalty or a punishment. In this case, it is the prohibition of allowing certain goods and services into North Korea. It is not intended to apply to humanitarian aid or “regular” goods but it does apply to goods that would encourage, directly or indirectly, certain types of activity. 

According to the United Nations 1718 Sanctions Committee on the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) “UN Sanctions Committee” set up the UN Security Council, North Korea is successfully evading UN Sanctions with “highly sophisticated methods”, enabling their regime to import oil, coal as well as sell weapons and benefit from cyber theft. This UN Sanctions Committee gave a report that can found on the UN website with the citation: S/2019/171.

The intent of these sanctions is to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear and missile programs. They are comprehensively designed to prevent Pyongyang from funding its nuclear weapons and other long-range missile programs. Describing North Korea’s evasive practices as “increasingly sophisticated,” the head of the UN Sanctions Committee, Hugh Griffiths makes it clear in an NBC news report that North Korea has responded by carving out new ways to evade UN Sanctions including deceptive practices with ship registries. This Committee has created “designated lists” or blacklists, for clarity, to name, shame and make known companies and ships that engage in prohibited-activity. Companies that are named in these reports are usually devastated by isolation as no right-thinking business would want any association with such actors. Notably, however, there is no dedicated list for captains of these ships.

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You may think that the Caribbean is far removed from these international activities but, interestingly, we are not and this is far from reality. Caribbean Ship Registries can be a weak spot for North Korea to exploit and it has already happened with the ships “M/V HAO FAN 2” and “M/V HAO FAN 6” (HAO FAN 6 currently on an all ports ban since 2017) registered in Saint Kitts and Nevis, as well as the YUK TUNG, flagged in Dominica. These ships were part of a web of bad actors that used complex methods of evading sanctions and acquiring sanctioned material.

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According to international law, a ship is given the nationality of the country in which is it registered. UN Sanctions are focused on North Korean Ships and its nationals, but with such pressure comes “creative” solutions. North Korea simply acquires new nationalities deceptively from unwitting ship registries or masquerade as being registered in countries that are remote from North Korea.

After gaining new nationalities from registration or the control of other flags ships through companies, they organize meetings by going out to sea turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS), mask their identity or otherwise manipulate their presence and engage in what is known as “Ship-to-ship transfers” of prohibited items including weapons clearly prohibited by UN Sanctions.

Any country that seizes prohibited items can acquire those goods and dispose of them as it sees fit. According to the Sanctions Committee, no claim shall lie against a country for doing this.

What can Caribbean Ship Registries do to Prevent the Misuse of their flags?

1)   Learn how to do extensive due diligence when registering ships. Due diligence is the best way to identify ships and companies that have been “designated” by the UN Sanctions Committee as ships that are engaged in sanctions activity. This involves all departments that interact with ships and offshore companies. Use free and powerful resources like GISIS, Equasis, Marinetraffic, VesselFinder and Tokyo MOU websites to review the application for new ship registrations. The internet is a pivotal resource in making sure the standards of our flags remain high.

2)   Discourage Citizenship by investment programs. Despite its very lucrative attraction, it is far more debilitating for other sectors like tourism and national investment to have your country mentioned as a haven for bad actors. I have heard compelling and vigorous arguments on both sides for and against these types of programs so arguably and to my mind, it is not worth the exposure for the potential misuse to sell your country’s passports in exchange for the simple requirement of land purchase or other monetary investments. The bad actors in North Korea create a nexus of nationalities from their home country so an applicant from Country XYZ may indeed have links to North Korea that may not be readily identified within the enabling framework of a CBI program. This, of course, can also be applied to the traditional international criminal elements.

3)   Implement UN Sanctions through legislation. There is one particular country that seized a ship that was carrying prohibited items but due to their poor and ambiguous legislation, clever lawyers were able to secure the release of the goods and the goods were sold onto another unnamed recipient. Clear legislation on this area can help countries to participate in global security by allowing UN sanctions to touch and concern their legal systems.

4)   Train your government personnel and private sector actors. This cannot be overstated a well trained public and private sector will help to eliminate successful deceptive attempts to be registered under the flags of our Caribbean Community.

5)   Have a relationship with the Panel of Experts of the UN Security Council. These individuals are highly competent in identifying whether seized goods are prohibited or allowable under the UN sanctions list. They are quite responsive and will quickly assist a customs unit in implementing UN sanctions.

North Korea has been chronically underestimated in its ability to procure resources. In an interesting presentation at a TEDx conference Mr John Park and Mr Jim Walsh, from MIT conducted a 3-year study on North Korea. They found that while sanctions actually elevated risk, it also attracted private companies that solicited higher commission to procure items like coal and even cyber activity. This TEDx talk is found here: HERE

Whether it is repainting names of ships or welding over IMO numbers to disguise an already blacklisted vessel to get onto a register, it is important for Caribbean Registries to have a clear awareness of what is on their register and exactly who is asking for the right to fly our flags. Regardless of the international political dimension, a flag of convenience can only become a flag of confidence through elevating its own standards of shipping and being a prudent member of the international community.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines recently secured a seat on the UN Security Council, which should be taken up in 2020. I was a very proud Vincentian to see my small country being overwhelmingly elected to hold such an honor. After some consideration, I would like to see SVG recommend that the UN begin a new “designated” list that focuses entirely on the captains and perhaps crew of these ships. While individuals are already added in reports there does not appear to be any dedicated lists holding crew and captain accountable for their actions out at see. This would be one of the many great ways to start off our participation in global security affairs. As world affairs continue to be intriguing, countries should seek to uphold their commitment to peace and security.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the government.

Chevanev A.Y. Charles is a practicing Barrister and a maritime law specialist that holds a Masters’ degree (LL.M) in International Maritime Law from the International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI Malta). For questions, comments or services kindly contact him: templestoke@gmail.com