N. Korean oil tankers around Russia go quiet in early 2015
North Korean tanker movements between the DPRK and the Russian Far East appeared to be quieter in January and February than in the preceding months, with few vessels registering on Marine Traffic’s terrestrial AIS tracking system during that time period.
Conversely, the part of the North Korean fleet dedicated to Chinese supplies appeared more active in the first two months of the year, with continuing trips to a large oil terminal near Shanghai.
The NK News vessel tracker still shows the majority of the DPRK tanker fleet dedicated to the country’s eastern coast, running mainly to Russia’s Far Eastern Slavyanka oil terminal, recently eschewing major Russian terminals in the area like Vladivostok and Nakhodka.
The Slavyanka oil terminal in Russia’s Primorsky Krai region is less than 100km from the North Korean border, meaning that even the DPRK’s aging fleet could make the round trip in a matter of days.
Tracking information received from transmitters placed along the Russian coast shows that only three of the 10 tankers in the area registered new positions in February, with another two broadcasting their positions in early January. The remaining five have yet to transmit AIS data to terrestrial transmitters in 2015.
The range of such transmitters is limited, however and does not extend far beyond the North Korean border, making it difficult to ascertain where the tankers head when they move out of range.
Many of the ships did register on Marine Traffic’s satellite tracking network, indicating that more activity took place, though the data was not available to NK News at the time of publication.
The most recent tanker to leave the Slavyanka oil terminal did so late at night on February 15. Normally North Korean tankers leaving the Russian port head along the North Korean north eastern coast, or turn southwest and make for the Nampho oil terminal on the DPRK’s eastern side, however the 2500-ton Yu Jong 3 took appeared to take a more unusual route.
Upon leaving the Russian port, the tanker turned southeast on a course that, if held, would have taken it to Japan, before disappearing off AIS tracking systems.
Between them, the three tankers that broadcast AIS data on Russia’s Far East in February could have shipped over 6,000 tons oil products to North Korea. Assuming there were no other deliveries from other tankers in the region, this would represent a sharp decline on figures over the December period last year when a minimum of 13,000 tons were shipped.
As the satellite AIS contacts make clear, however, these figures are likely higher, but poor ship tracking coverage in the region, combined with short journey distances means that North Korean tankers could complete deliveries while staying out of range of the terrestrial AIS ship tracking system.
While the amount of data transmitted is still low when compared to international standards – most other oil tankers and cargo vessels broadcast their positions continuously without interruption – the tankers moving to Chinese terminals appeared more active than their counterparts in Russian waters.
As previously reported, the North Korean crude oil tanker, the Nam San 8, continued shuttling between Nampho and China’s Dalian oil terminal, despite the absence of crude oil in Chinese customs data.
In addition to using the relatively nearby Dalian oil terminal, North Korean tankers working in Chinese waters occasionally appear to make the much longer trip to Yangshan, near Shanghai. The round trip from Nampho is about 1000km, a distance that would most tanker charterers would consider “exotic” given the vessel’s small 3,500-ton capacity.
In total, the six DPRK tankers operating in Chinese waters could have shipped a minimum of 13,500 tons over the last four weeks, a figure not far removed from the usual 17,000 tons declared in monthly Chinese customs data.
North Korean ships have long been known to sail under flags of different countries, a practice known as having a ”flag of convenience” (FOC), and it appears that the DPRK oil tankers are no exception.
While reflagging in this way is fairly common in the maritime industry, as it generally allows ships to circumvent safety and environmental laws, the DPRK uses flags of convenience in combination with networks of paper companies usually based in China and Hong Kong to hide the identity of some of its vessels.
According to ship inspection records and the Equasis maritime database, all three vessels changed flags between June and December 2013. They also changed management companies and owners, but their routes remained similar, continuing to use the same Russian or Chinese oil terminals in the area.
As well as occluding the amount of oil North Korea is shipping, a previous NK News investigation found that one possible consequence for North Korean vessels sailing under FOCs is that they can continue to use South Korean waterways.
After the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan vessel in 2010, North Korean vessels were barred from making use of South Korean waters, but DPRK ships sailing with FOCs appear to get a pass.
As can be currently seen on the NK News vessel tracker, two of the FOC tankers were last seen within a stone’s throw of South Korea’s east coast, heading in opposite directions.
This more direct route would likely be unavailable to tankers sailing under North Korean flags, which might instead have to take the longer routes further out to sea near the Oki Islands. This would likely increase delivery times for any shipments heading from the Russian Far East to Nampho.