Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

North Korean Shipping: A Potential for WMD Proliferation?

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

North Korean Shipping: A Potential for WMD Proliferation?

Article excerpt

An ongoing staple of security concern in the Asia Pacific region is the fear that the sea freight of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) will be used for illicit activities-from smuggling of drugs and counterfeit currency to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In 2003, for instance, one North Korean defector testified to the U.S. Congress that North Korea obtained 90 percent of its missile components from Japan using cargo ships that sailed between Wonsan and Niigata. The U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) provided one response to these fears by seeking to create partnerships in the region to monitor and control the shipping of WMD; its de facto primary target was North Korean shipping.1 Another, in the wake of North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test, was United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which among other things prohibited the transfer of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, ballistic missiles, and components of WMD to and from North Korea.2

North Korea's major international freight capacity is in the shipping sector. North Korean shipping companies, like all other enterprises, lost state subsidies beginning in the early 1990s and adopted profit maximization as the primary goal of business activities.3 The push factor was government pressure on companies to make money. The pull factor was individuals' need for income for their families. Combined with opportunities for travel denied to most North Koreans, loosening of government surveillance, and inadequate and undeveloped governmental regulatory capacity, it would not be surprising if smuggling occurred. Structural frailties in the North Korean shipping sector contribute to an environment in which owners, managers, and individual crew members are vulnerable to criminal exploitation and hence the potential for smuggling of all sorts of goods-from lumber to WMD.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, there is little evidence to suggest that the North Korean government systematically transports WMD through its own merchant fleet or engages in smuggling by sea (or air). Also perhaps surprisingly, given the conventional perception of North Korea as a monolithic society in which all activity is controlled by the state, the North Korean shipping industry is fragmented and privatized as well as being, less surprisingly, nationalist in its ownership, flagging, and crewing patterns. Again, perhaps surprising is that the North Korean shipping industry operates as a conventional participant in global shipping markets and international shipping regimes. In the shipping industry, rather than being isolated from world trading regimes, North Korea is a globalized player, albeit a relatively small one.

How Do We Know Anything About North Korean Ships?

It is relatively straightforward to obtain data about North Korean shipping because of the characteristics of the global shipping industry that lend themselves to transparency. Countervailing tendencies to opacity, also present in global shipping regimes, are more or less absent in the case of North Korean shipping.

Tendencies to transparency. Comprehensive data on merchant ships is collected and collated in international commercial shipping databases, the most reputable of which is the Lloyds Shipping Register.4 These are accessible to researchers on payment of a subscription. Data on individual ships, companies, and owners are also available from a variety of opensource databases. These databases allow for a large degree of cross-checking and cross-matching of data.5 Open-source information on ships is also available via the public reporting mechanisms of international port control conventions and procedures.6

Because of the reporting systems demanded by international laws, conventions, norms, and safety rules, ships that enter foreign ports undergo regular safety inspections.7 Regional port control authorities, particularly the Tokyo and Paris MOU secretariats (Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control), collate and publish data drawn from these inspections online, providing a useful source of data on all ships that call into Asian and European ports. …

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