In light of the recent Russian incursion into Ukraine, much of the attention from policy makers and media outlets both internationally and domestically, has understandably shifted towards Eastern Europe and temporarily away from developments in North Korea. Despite this perceived lack of attention, multiple new developments regarding North Korean arms procurement and testing have occurred over the course of the last several months. In a report released by the UN Security Council at the beginning of last month, the manner in which the DPRK has been trading embargoed armaments was presented in great detail.
The report, which is an annual assessment of the effectiveness of sanctions against the DPRK, is a 127-page document pinned by eight UN experts. An extensive system of procedures implemented by the DPRK to circumvent UN sanctions against arms trading was catalogued, using the seizure of the vessel the Chong Chon Gang in Panama, as a chief example. On board covered by tons of sugar, were two Soviet-era MiG-21s, which the Cubans claim were being sent to DPRK for repair, to be later returned to Cuba. Also found on board were numerous types of conventional armaments including anti-tank missiles and rocket propelled grenades, as well as material that could be outfitted for use in missile technology. Although the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang was seen as a positive capture for the UN, it must be concluded that the DPRK has been using similar tactics throughout the previous decade in which UN sanctions have been implemented.
Strategies used by the DPRK to circumvent the UN mandated arms embargo strongly resemble some of the tactics used by drug-smugglers and have a reasonable level of sophistication. The first of these is creating false private companies which operate to create distance from the government and the act of smuggling. An additional advantage of this is that if assets of the company are frozen or seized, it can represent just a small portion of the overall smuggling, as multiple cover-up companies can be created. The one issue that this creates for the DPRK is that, no private industry is permitted in that country, making this charade difficult to convincingly prove. The second strategy used by the DPRK is use of foreign embassies as a tool for smuggling. Diplomatic protection makes embassies small safe havens abroad, wherein overseers of the 'shipping company' in question can find refuge while planning and executing shipments. In the case of the Chong Chon Gang, DPRK embassies in Havana and Singapore were used to plan and harbor the seized shipment.
Another tactic that can be used, is to physically conceal illegal contraband being shipped, as mentioned earlier, the two MiG-21s aboard the Chong Chon Gang were covered in tons of sugar. While this is certainly not a fail safe strategy, it is often times unlikely that customs agents will take the time to search through thousands of tons of legal material without the presence of already founded suspicions. Further, these shipments can be falsely catalogued by using forged stowage plans and customs declarations, that work further to deceive customs officials at foreign ports. One last tactic that can be implemented is to conceal a vessels position while moving through open waters. This can be done by turning off the ships automatic identification systems and falsifying ship logs. From a smuggling perspective, one negative aspect of disarming this automatic identification system, is that it if detected, it is seen immediately identified as suspicious.
All of the aforementioned strategies have been implemented by the DPRK to circumvent the UN arms embargo against it, and the fact that only one ship has been seized in recent history, indicates that they have likely achieved some degree of success doing so. This further highlights DPRK belligerence against UN and western sanctions and declarations, and is something which must be more closely monitored going forward. DPRK arms smuggling coupled with increasingly successful ballistic missile and nuclear testing are likely moving DPRK abilities closer to being able to mount a warhead on a ballistic missile. The fallout from such a reality is something that would be of grave concern to South Korea, Japan and American military instillations in Asia. As such, it will be imperative that customs officials globally work together to ensure that DPRK vessels are not shipping illegal arms shipments and that possible additional steps should be taken to search these shipments within the current UN framework.