DPRK’s shipping infrastructure

This week, Paul Eckert of Reuters informs us of an interesting study by Hazel Smith, titled, North Korean Shipping: A Potential for WMD Proliferation?.

According to the Reuters article:

British North Korea expert Hazel Smith said her detailed study of North Korean merchant shipping showed a fleet of only 242 aging vessels faces too much scrutiny in the world’s ports to be a significant conduit for weapons of mass destruction.

“We can’t really find very much hard evidence of North Korean ships involved in smuggling WMD or components of WMD,” Smith, of Cranfield University, told a Washington meeting of think tank East-West Center.

The weapons of mass destruction trade North Korea conducts, such as missile sales to Iran or Pakistan, is more likely moved by aircraft or allied vessels than on highly suspect North Korean-owned or -flagged ships, her report said.

Her findings, based on tracking ship movements using Lloyds Shipping Register and other insurance databases, call into question the efficacy of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led network of countries launched in 2003 to stop illicit weapons of mass destruction shipments because that effort focuses on shipping, she said.

Anti-proliferation efforts should instead focus on strengthening port controls and negotiating North Korean entry into international arms control treaties as part of a broader disarmament diplomacy with Pyongyang, Smith said.


North Korea’s fragmented merchant shipping industry has only a handful of directly state- or provincial-owned vessels, with most run by small owner operators, who lost state subsidies in the early 1990s, said the study.

With underpaid seamen, dilapidated vessels and dire cash and food shortages in North Korea, “it wouldn’t be surprising if crew and management would grasp opportunities to earn cash on the side from port calls,” Smith told the East-West Center, which published her report.

But even countries friendly toward North Korea such as China, Russia and Vietnam impose strict inspections on North Korean merchant ships, which are frequently stopped and even detained for serious safety violations, said the report.

In four publicly known cases between 1992-2003 in which North Korean vessels were stopped on suspicion of shipping WMD components or chemicals, none were prosecuted because the cargo was either undetermined, legal or “dual-use,” with legal applications Smith said.

You can download a PDF version of Prof. Smith’s paper here.  Below is the abstract:

The possibility that North Korean ships may be smuggling weapons of mass destruction is a matter of intense concern in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. The few reported incidents of North Korean ships involved in WMD transport are ambiguous; some ships have been engaged in legal weapons trade and some carried “dual-use” goods suitable for use in nonmilitary applications, like agriculture. Ownership of the North Korean merchant fleet is largely private and highly fragmented; most of its ships are small, old, and in poor repair, and are often subject to rigorous scrutiny in foreign ports. The inability of the government to effectively regulate the low-cost, substandard shipping industry creates the risk and incentives to smuggle goods, including WMD. Anti-proliferation efforts should abandon the divisive and unsuccessful Proliferation Security Initiative and concentrate on negotiating North Korea’s entry into international arms control treaties, maintain stringent port controls, and negotiate technical assistance to reduce the vulnerability of the North Korean shipping industry.

You can listen to an interview with Hazel Smith here.

Read the full article here:
N.Korea ships smuggle goods, but not WMDs: report
Reuters  (Via Washington Post)
Paul Eckert


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