Archive for the ‘Singapore’ Category

North Korea Tech Transfer

Friday, July 20th, 2007

Wall Street Journal
Melanie Kirkpatrick

Of all the evidence turned up by the U.S. concerning irregularities in the United Nations Development Program’s operations in North Korea, some of the most disturbing concerns the transfer of dual-use technology.

As reported last month, the U.S. has uncovered documents showing the UNDP procured and delivered to North Korea in May 2006 technology that could be used for military purposes: global positioning system (GPS) equipment, a portable high-end spectrometer and a large quantity of high-specification computer hardware. According to packing lists and confirmation receipts, the items were intended for a “GIS” — geographic information system — project.

The equipment “is the type of technology subject to (U.S.) export controls,” says a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which is responsible for issuing export licenses. So how did it end up in Pyongyang? It would seem more than passing strange that Commerce would have issued the requisite export licenses. The answer is: It didn’t.

U.S. officials, led by Ambassador Mark Wallace at the U.S. mission to the U.N., have spent a year looking into the UNDP’s operations in North Korea. Now, at the request of the State Department, Commerce searched its archives and found no record of any application for export licenses for the GPS, spectrometer or other equipment for the GIS project in North Korea.

Over the past 10 years, Commerce has received more than 200 license applications to export U.S. technology for U.N. projects in North Korea. Of those applications, the UNDP was named in a grand total of two, including one for software for the same GIS project that was equipped last year. That application was rejected.

Previously undisclosed documents show that the UNDP had been trying to equip the GIS project since at least 1999, when the application for an export license for mapping software was denied. Commerce cited concerns over the lack of safeguards in the project that could result in the software being diverted to the North Korean government and used for military purposes.

Yet seven years later, the UNDP procured and transferred sensitive technology to the same, unsafeguarded project — this time without bothering to apply for a license. And while there’s no evidence the UNDP went ahead and purchased the software for which it had been denied a license, that possibility must be considered, since GPS equipment is useless in such a project without mapping software.

The denial notice for “Case Number: Z177037” is dated Sept. 18, 1999. The “consignee in country of ultimate destination” is listed as the UNDP in Pyongyang. The one-page notice is written in prose that is clear and unambiguous: “The Department of Commerce has concluded that this export would be detrimental to U.S. foreign policy interests.”

The 14 items on the UNDP’s wish list were all classified “EAR99,” which means they are subject to Commerce jurisdiction but didn’t specifically appear on the Commerce Control List of items restricted for export. In discussions over the past several weeks with State Department officials, Commerce officials who examined the archives explained their agency’s decision to deny the export license. During the interagency review of the UNDP request, they say, questions were raised about whether the software would stay in North Korea after the UNDP international staff left and whether North Koreans would have access to the software.

Supporting documents show that the answer to both questions was yes. A letter dated April 5, 1999, from the software manufacturer that was seeking the export license on behalf of the UNDP, explains: “The project is supposed to be completed in three (3) years and the software will be left with the state agencies.”

Emails from the UNDP to Commerce offer further information about the UNDP’s security controls — or lack thereof. An Aug. 3, 1999 email from the UNDP’s Shankar Manandhar, in response to a Commerce query, says, “We would like to inform you that the North Korean nationals will have access to the computer in the project office in [the] presence of UNDP staff.” In another email, Mr. Manandhar notes that the software will be “utilized in the project office.”

The Defense Department recommended to Commerce that the application be denied. In a memo dated July 20, 1999, Defense explains that “These items could pose both national security and proliferation issues for the US and allies if diverted to the North Korean military.” Among the list of potential military applications cited are “planning a nuclear weapons infrastructure or missile launch sites.” And, “it could also be used for targeting.” In the end, as one Commerce official explained, since this type of mapping software can be used for military purposes, it was deemed to be “too great a risk of diversion.”

The Commerce official also says the case notes for the denial specify that several earlier licenses granted to the UNDP in North Korea had been conditioned in such a way that no North Korean nationals were to have access to the licensed items. Oh, really? Based on the UNDP’s replies to Commerce’s questions regarding the 1999 application, the official says that the licensing officer at the time believed it was “highly likely” that the UNDP was violating the terms of its previous licenses by allowing North Koreans access to licensed items. We now know — as confirmed by the U.N.’s preliminary audit of the UNDP’s North Korea operations — that the agency’s local staff were Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees assigned to the UNDP by the government.

It’s also worth noting the year these events took place: 1999. That is, the denial notice originated in Bill Clinton’s Commerce Department, part of an administration that was “conducting a one-sided love affair with North Korea,” in the felicitous phrase of Christopher Cox, then a Republican congressman closely monitoring Asian issues. On Sept. 17, 1999, the day before the issuance of the denial notice, the administration announced it would ease economic sanctions on North Korea. But approving the sale of sophisticated mapping software was a bridge too far even for the Clinton administration.

Since the U.S. went public in January with evidence of the UNDP’s lack of oversight of its programs in North Korea, the agency hasn’t exactly been forthcoming. At first, the UNDP denied that it had purchased dual-use equipment for North Korea, referring instead to “rice husk removers” and “plotters to help the [Korean] authorities more accurately produce maps for environmental monitoring.”

Next it look the line that the GPS equipment, portable spectrometer and computers delivered in May 2006 “do not represent state-of-the-art technology,” as Ad Melkert, the No. 2 UNDP official, put it in a June 28 letter to Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. An annex to Mr. Melkert’s letter describes the technology as “not high-end or sophisticated” — an assessment at odds with the representations of the manufacturers. Trimble, for example, maker of the GPS GeoXT Handheld sent to North Korea, describes its product as having “a powerful 416 MHz processor running the most-advanced operating system available.” Mr. Melkert says in the annex that the UNDP is investigating “whether the vendors [in the Netherlands and Singapore] were required to obtain export permits for these items” — which sure sounds like an effort to shift responsibility.

Since January, when the U.S. concerns were made public, the UNDP has pulled out of North Korea and the U.N. audit has confirmed extensive violations of U.N. rules regarding hiring practices, the use of foreign currency and site inspections. The latest U.S. revelations raise far more serious questions about the UNDP’s oversight. Under the most generous interpretation, the agency was negligent of its legal responsibilities to keep dual-use technology out of a country that is on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states. At worst, it deliberately transferred the technology, knowing it was breaking U.S. law and helping to strengthen Kim Jong Il’s military dictatorship.

These questions — and many more concerning the UNDP’s record in North Korea — highlight the need for an independent, external inquiry of the UNDP’s programs world-wide. The U.S. first went public with its concerns in January, after months of pressing the UNDP for more transparency. If anything, as the latest U.S. evidence shows, things are worse than anyone thought.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.


Tobacco company pulls out of North Korea

Friday, June 8th, 2007

The Guardian
Julia Kollewe

British American Tobacco is pulling out of North Korea, but insisted the move had nothing to do with political pressure.

The world’s second largest cigarette group, whose brands include Lucky Strike, Kent and Dunhill, said it had agreed to sell its 60% share in Taesong BAT, its joint venture in Pyongyang with the Korea Sogyong Chonyonmul Trading Operation, a state-owned company.

BAT is selling the stake to SUTL, a Singapore-based trading group that invests in business ventures in South East Asia. The price has not been agreed yet but will be small in relation to the group. The sale is expected to be completed later this year.

Read their press release here.


Int’l Trade Fair to Open in Pyongyang

Monday, May 7th, 2007

The 10th Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair will be held at the Three-Revolution Exhibition from May 14 to 17. 

Participating in it will be companies from the DPRK, China, Russia, Syria, the Netherlands, Germany, Bangladesh, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia, Italy, Indonesia, Pakistan, Poland and Taipei of China. 

Machine tools, electric and electronic equipment, vehicles, medicaments, daily necessities, foodstuffs and so forth are to be on display in the fair.


North seeks Russian or Italian home for its funds

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Joon Ang Daily
Brian Lee

Still seeking access to the international financial system, Pyongyang has asked Macao authorities to transfer $25 million in funds to unnamed banks in Russia and Italy, signaling some progress in the deadlock over money held in a Macao bank.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei told Japanese lawmakers visiting Beijing that North Korea broached the idea, the Kyodo News Agency reported. Wu said that Macao authorities are trying to determine whether the move is possible.

South Korean government officials held out hope that the news could be a catalyst in finally resolving an issue that has been dragging on for weeks. “We are ready at anytime to move on; we are just waiting for the clouds to clear,” said one official. Italy was the first European country to open diplomatic ties with Pyongyang in 2000.

The dispute over the money led the North to miss the April 14 deadline for shutting down its main nuclear reactor.

In what was viewed as a major concession, Washington announced on April 10 that it supported measures by Macao to unblock the North Korean funds held in Banco Delta Asia. The U.S. had said the money was the result of illegal activities.

However, other than saying that it has taken notice of such measures, Pyongyang has delayed withdrawing the money. Instead, through state media, the North said it was looking to integrate itself into the international financial system rather than just retrieve the money.

With China and Macao entering the labor day holiday starting today, it could be a few days before any transfer takes place, the government official in Seoul conceded.

A source said that Pyongyang had also asked banks in Singapore, Vietnam and Mongolia to agree to a transfer but was rebuffed.

Washington has endorsed measures to unfreeze the funds, but it has not withdrawn its designation of Banco Delta Asia as a confirmed money launderer.


North Korea’s IT revolution

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

The state of North Korea’s information-technology (IT) industry has been a matter of conjecture ever since “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il famously asked then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address during her visit to the country in October 2000.

The answer is that it is surprisingly sophisticated. North Korea may be one of the world’s least globalized countries, but it has long produced ballistic missiles and now even a nuclear arsenal, so it is actually hardly surprising that it also has developed advanced computer technology, and its own software.

Naturally, it lags far behind South Korea, the world’s most wired country, but a mini-IT revolution is taking place in North Korea. Some observers, such as Alexandre Mansourov, a specialist on North Korean security issues at the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), believes that in the long run it may “play a major role in reshaping macroeconomic policymaking and the microeconomic behavior of the North Korean officials and economic actors respectively”.

Sanctions imposed against North Korea after its nuclear test last October may have made it a bit more difficult for the country to obtain high-tech goods from abroad, but not impossible. Its string of front companies in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan are still able to acquire what the country needs. It’s not all for military use, but as with everything else in North Korea, products from its IT industry have both civilian and non-civilian applications.

The main agency commanding North Korea’s IT strategy is the Korea Computer Center (KCC), which was set up in 1990 by Kim Jong-il himself at an estimated cost of US$530 million. Its first chief was the Dear Leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who at that time also headed the State Security Agency, North Korea’s supreme security apparatus, which is now called the State Safety and Security Agency.

Functioning as a secret-police force, the agency is responsible for counterintelligence at home and abroad and, according to the American Federation of Scientists, “carries out duties to ensure the safety and maintenance of the system, such as search for and management of anti-system criminals, immigration control, activities for searching out spies and impure and antisocial elements, the collection of overseas information, and supervision over ideological tendencies of residents. It is charged with searching out anti-state criminals – a general category that includes those accused of anti-government and dissident activities, economic crimes, and slander of the political leadership. Camps for political prisoners are under its jurisdiction.”

In the 1980s, Kim Jong-nam studied at an international private school in Switzerland, where he learned computer science as well as several foreign languages, including English and French. Shortly after the formation of the KCC, South Korean intelligence sources assert, he moved the agency’s clandestine overseas information-gathering outfit to the center’s new building in Pyongyang’s Mangyongdae district. It was gutted by fire in 1997, but rebuilt with a budget of $1 billion, a considerable sum in North Korea. It included the latest facilities and equipment that could be obtained from abroad. According to its website, the KCC has 11 provincial centers and “branch offices, joint ventures and marketing offices in Germany, China, Syria, [the United] Arab Emirates and elsewhere”.

The KCC’s branch in Germany was established in 2003 by a German businessman, Jan Holtermann, and is in Berlin. At the same time, Holtermann set up an intranet service in Pyongyang and, according to Reporters Without Borders, “reportedly spent 700,000 euros [more than US$950,000] on it. To get around laws banning the transfer of sensitive technology to the Pyongyang regime, all data will be kept on servers based in Germany and sent by satellite to North Korean Internet users.” Nevertheless, it ended the need to dial Internet service providers in China to get out on the Web.

Holtermann also arranged for some of the KCC’s products to be shown for the first time in the West at the international IT exhibition CeBIT (Center of Office and Information Technology) last year in Hanover, Germany. The KCC’s branches in China are also active and maintain offices in the capital Beijing and Dalian in the northeast.

Another North Korean computer company, Silibank in Shenyang, in 2001 actually became North Korea’s first Internet service provider, offering an experimental e-mail relay service through gateways in China. In March 2004, the North Koreans established a software company, also in Shenyang, called the Korea 615 Editing Corp, which according to press releases at the time would “provide excellent software that satisfies the demand from Chinese consumers with competitive prices”.

Inside North Korea, however, access to e-mail and the Internet remains extremely limited. The main “intranet” service is provided by the Kwangmyong computer network, which includes a browser, an internal e-mail program, newsgroups and a search engine. Most of its users are government agencies, research institutes, educational organizations – while only people like Kim Jong-il, a known computer buff, have full Internet access.

But the country beams out its own propaganda over Internet sites such as, which in Korean, Chinese, Russian and Japanese carries the writings of Kim Jong-il and his father, “the Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, along with pictures of scenic Mount Paekdu near the Chinese border, the “cradle of the Korean revolution”, from where Kim Il-sung ostensibly led the resistance against the Japanese colonial power during World War II, and where Kim Jong-il was born, according to the official version of history. Most other sources would assert that the older Kim spent the war years in exile in a camp near the small village of Vyatskoye 70 kilometers north of Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, where the younger Kim was actually born in 1942.

The official Korean Central New Agency also has its own website,, which is maintained by pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans in Japan, and carries daily news bulletins in Korean, English, Russian and Spanish, but with rather uninspiring headlines such as “Kim Jong-il sends message of greetings to Syrian president”, “Kim Jong-il’s work published in Mexico” and “Floral basket to DPRK [North Korea] Embassy [in Phnom Penh] from Cambodian Great King and Great Queen”.

On the more innocent side, the KCC produces software for writing with Korean characters a Korean version of Linux, games for personal computers and PlayStation – and an advanced computer adaptation of go, a kind of Asian chess game, which, according to the Dutch IT firm GPI Consultancy, “has won the world championship for go games for several years. The games department has a display showing all the trophies which were won during international competitions.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the North Koreans also produce some of the software for mobile phones made by the South Korean company Samsung, which began collaboration with the KCC in March 2000. North Korean computer experts have received training in China, Russia and India, and are considered, even by the South Koreans, as some of the best in the world.

More ominously, in October 2004, South Korea’s Defense Ministry reported to the country’s National Assembly that the North had trained “more than 500 computer hackers capable of launching cyber-warfare” against its enemies. “North Korea’s intelligence-warfare capability is estimated to have reached the level of advanced countries,” the report said, adding that the military hackers had been put through a five-year university course training them to penetrate the computer systems of South Korea, the United States and Japan.

According to US North Korea specialist Joseph Bermudez, “The Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces understands electronic warfare to consist of operations using electromagnetic spectrum to attack the enemy by jamming or spoofing. During the 1990s, the ministry identified electronic intelligence warfare as a new type of warfare, the essence of which is the disruption or destruction of the opponent’s computer networks – thereby paralyzing their military command and control system.”

Skeptical observers have noted that US firewalls should be able to prevent that from happening, and that North Korea still has a long way to go before it can seriously threaten the sophisticated computer networks of South Korea, Japan and the US.

It is also uncertain whether Kim Jong-nam still heads the KCC and the State Safety and Security Agency. In May 2001, he was detained at Tokyo’s airport at Narita for using what appeared to be a false passport from the Dominican Republic. He had arrived in the Japanese capital from Singapore with some North Korean children to visit Tokyo Disneyland – but instead found himself being deported to China. Since then, he has spent most of his time in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, where he has been seen in the city’s casinos and massage parlors. This February, the Japanese and Hong Kong media published pictures of him in Macau, and details of his lavish lifestyle there – which prompted him to leave for mainland China, where he is now believed to be living.

Whatever Kim Jong-nam’s present status may be in the North Korean hierarchy, the KCC is more active than ever, and so is another software developer, the Pyongyang Informatics Center, which, at least until recently, had a branch in Singapore. Other links in the region include Taiwan’s Jiage Limited Corporation, which has entered a joint-venture operation with the KCC under the rather curious name Chosun Daedong River Electronic Calculator Joint Operation Companies, which, according to South Korea’s trade agency, KOTRA, produces computers and circuit boards.

The US Trading with the Enemy Act and restrictions under the international Wassenaar Arrangement, which controls the trade in dual-use goods and technologies (military and civilian), may prohibit the transfer of advanced technology to North Korea, but with easy ways around these restrictions, sanctions seem to have had little or no effect.

North Korea’s IT development seems unstoppable, and the APCSS’s Mansourov argues that it can “both strengthen and undermine political propaganda and ideological education, as well as totalitarian surveillance and control systems imposed by the absolutist and monarchic security-paranoid state on its people, especially at the time of growing conflict between an emerging entrepreneurial politico-corporate elites and the old military-industrial elite”.

So will the IT revolution, as he puts it, “liquefy or solidify the ground underneath Kim Jong-il’s regime? Will the IT revolution be the beginning of the end of North Korea, at least as we know it today?” Most probably, it will eventually break North Korea’s isolation, even if the country’s powerful military also benefits from improved technologies. And there may be a day when the KCNA will have something more exciting to report about than “A furnace-firing ceremony held at the Taean Friendship Glass Factory”.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.


Flags that hide the dirty truth

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Asia Times
Robert Neff

Many small countries in the world have resorted to unorthodox methods of obtaining much-needed currency. Although these methods may be legal, they often assist unscrupulous individuals and governments in conducting illegal activities. One popular method of obtaining cash is through flags of convenience (FOC). Countries, even land-locked ones, register other nations’ ships under their flag for a price.

It is a profitable industry that has no shortage of customers. Shipowners choose to register their ships under a foreign flag for a number of reasons, including tax advantages, cheap non-union crews, the ships’ conditions fail to meet the standards of the owner’s country, political reasons, or to facilitate illegal activities.

Because many of these ships often exchange flags and even their names, it is difficult to trace them, thus providing the anonymity they need to conduct their illegal operations. According to a statement by David Cockroft, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF): “Arms smuggling, the ability to conceal large sums of money, trafficking in goods and people and other illegal activities can also thrive in the unregulated havens which the flag of convenience system provides.”

Flying the Cambodian flag
One of the most notorious FOC countries was Cambodia. In 1994, Cambodia established its own ship registry – Cambodian Shipping Corporation (CSC), based in Singapore – and began immediately flagging ships of other nations.

Although its beginnings were modest (only 16 foreign ships registered with Cambodia during the first year) the CSC rapidly expanded. According to CSC, prior to its closing in 2002, the number of ships registered with the company was between 400 and 600, but according to US investigators and Cambodian officials the number was probably twice that.

CSC offered basically what many other FOC countries offered: registry for any ship, no questions asked, under its (Cambodia’s) flag for a low price. But, unlike other FOC countries, it offered to do the entire process online and within 24 hours. Despite Cambodia’s relative lag in Internet technology, its operation in Singapore enabled CSC to pioneer online registration.

As more and more foreign ships registered with CSC, it soon became apparent that a large number of the ships were involved in illegal activities. Cigarette smuggling operations were discovered near Crete and Albania; during the oil embargo of Iraq, oil was smuggled out of that country; human trafficking and prostitution operations were discovered near Japan and Crete, and, of course, drug trafficking.

All of these activities were cause for concern and drew condemnation, but there was one more criminal activity that concerned many nations even more: allegations that many of the ships were running arms. “Cambodia is one of the highest-risk flags. It is particularly murky and has got to be one of the first choices if you are running arms,” a spokesman for ITF said.

When asked about CSC’s alleged illegal operations, Ahamd Yahya of the Cambodian Ministry of Public Works and Transport was reported to have told Fairplay: “We don’t know or care who owns the ships or whether they’re doing ‘white’ or ‘black’ business … it is not our concern.” (Fairplay, October 12, 2000.)

Unsafe ships
In addition to illicit activities, the condition of the ships themselves was a concern. According to an article in the Guardian of London, by 2002 the company had about 450 registered ships, and out of this number 25 had suffered shipwrecks/strandings, 41 collisions, nine fires and 45 arrests. Nine  ś% ¬’n-registered ships were deemed severely hazardous and banned from entering European ports.

By the summer of 2002, many of the leading shipping organizations were calling for action to be taken against CSC. A spokesman for ITF condemned CSC and Lloyds shipping intelligence service wrote in an opinion piece: “The world should join us in demanding that Cambodia shut down this sleazy and pestilent offshore registration. How many more people have to die in incidents involving Cambodian-flagged vessels, or its ships detained for illegal activities, before something is actually done about it?”

The North Korean connection
American and South Korean interests in CSC were aroused when it was observed that a large number of North Korean ships, at least a dozen according to Michael Richardson, journalist and author of A Time Bomb for Global Trade, were registered with CSC and flying the Cambodian flag.

It is no secret that the Cambodian royal family had, and still maintains, a close relationship with the North Korean regime. King Norodom Sihamoni has often spoken of the Kim regime in a favorable manner. Kim Il-sung provided him with asylum during the turbulent years of Cambodia’s past and even built him an extensive 60-room palace outside Pyongyang. When the royal family returned to Cambodia it was accompanied by North Korean diplomats and bodyguards.

North Korea’s involvement in Cambodia’s flag of convenience operation was suspected after an investigation revealed that one of the primary partners in CSC was Lim In-yong, a senior North Korean diplomat who had served in Cambodia for many years. His role with CSC was described as being that of “a private citizen, [and] not as a representative of the North Korean government”. Whether his role was purely that of an individual or of a more sinister nature is unclear. But the United States and several other countries became increasingly suspicious of North Korea and the company’s motives.

Among several charges of illegal operations by North Korean ships, one was drug smuggling. When it was suggested in the media that Cambodian-registered North Korean ships may have been involved in drug smuggling, CSC denied any knowledge.

Incidents of drug smuggling involving ships from other nations flagged by the company were apparent. In 2002, the Greek-owned, but Cambodian-registered Winner was seized by French forces and discovered to be smuggling a large amount of cocaine. Interestingly enough, Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, gave his permission to the French government to board the ship – an indication that he did not support CSC. A short time later he revoked CSC’s authority to grant registry to foreign ships.

Perhaps the most infamous North Korean drug smuggling operation took place in 2003. The North Korean freighter Pong-su began its journey from North Korea under its own flag, but on arriving in Singapore changed its registration and reflagged under Tuvulu. It then proceeded to Australia where it was discovered trying to smuggle in a large amount of heroin, and was eventually seized after it tried to resist Australian authorities. Although this incident did not involve a Cambodian-flagged ship, it does give some credence to speculation that North Korea had smuggled drugs using CSC-flagged ships.

Weapons smuggling
While North Korea’s attempts to gain badly needed hard currency by smuggling drugs and tobacco were of some concern to the United States, more important were allegations that North Korea was smuggling and selling advanced weapons technology to other nations.

“Of most concern to the US and indeed to South Korea was the clear evidence that North Korean freighters flying the Cambodian flag or on the Cambodian register were moving ballistic missiles to clients in the Middle East and Africa,” noted journalist Richardson.

Perhaps the best-known of these Cambodian-registered North Korean ships was the Song Sang. In November 2002, a freighter believed to be carrying weapons departed a North Korean port and was tracked by American satellites and American naval ships. In December, as it made its way through the Indian Ocean, it was stopped by American and Spanish naval forces and inspected.

The United States justified its actions by claiming that it was flying no flag and thus was considered a pirate ship. According to Richard Boucher, the State Department’s spokesman, “At first we couldn’t verify the nationality of the ship because the ship’s name and the indications on the hull and the funnel were obscured. It was flying no flag.”

On investigation it was found that the ship was the So San, which claimed to have Cambodian registry. The So San’s manifest stated it was transporting cement to Yemen, but an examination revealed 15 Scud missiles with 15 conventional warheads, 23 tanks of nitric acid rocket propellant and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals all hidden beneath the bags of cement.

It is believed that the North Koreans tried to disguise the ship (Song Sang) by painting over the last two letters in the first name and the final letter in the second name (So San) to help prevent identification. The ship was eventually allowed to continue on its course after it was determined that it had broken no laws.

World criticism
Following the World Trade Center and other terrorist attacks, world opinion began to force the Cambodian government to reconsider its policy of allowing CSC to flag ships at will. The Cambodian government felt compelled to take action before one of the ships under its flag was found guilty of terrorist activity.

“We are victims because the company recklessly allows ships to use the Cambodian flag without proper inspection or control,” said Hor Namhong, the foreign minister, adding: “The company will be audited by the government.”

In July 2002, bowing to international criticism over concern for “Cambodia’s maritime safety record”, the Cambodian government revoked CSC’s authority to grant registrations, giving that authority to the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. Ironically, it was this ministry that had just two years earlier declared disinterest into the alleged illegal activities of ships registered under its flag.

The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation was only in control of the registry for about six months before the Cambodian government granted the authority to register and flag ships to a new company, International Ship Registry of Cambodia, and its representatives in Busan, South Korea. According to e-mail correspondence from the company’s managing director, Charles Bach, to New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher, there are no longer any North Korean ships registered under the Cambodian flag.

But Marcus Hand, the Asian editor for Lloyd’s List, explained how difficult it is to know for certain who owns what ship because so many of them are owned by different companies registered throughout the world and only the North Koreans themselves know how many ships they own and what flag they fly.

Not only does North Korea purchase flags of convenience, it also sells them for nearly three times the normal asking price. According to ITF in 2006, out of 408 North Korean-flagged ships, only 187 of them were actually owned by North Korea; the rest were owned by other nations including Cambodia, Tonga, Comoros and Sao Tome and Principe – nations that are infamous for their own flags of convenience.

Prior to the United Nations Security Council’s resolution following North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, some of the ships registered to North Korea may have done so to avoid inspection while they carried out illegal activities.

There is some question as to the number of ships that were owned by United States-based companies and registered and flagged under North Korea. According to the American Central Intelligence Agency’s Fact Book, there were three, but Bill Gertz, in an article published with The Washington Times (June 8, 2006), listed nine ships owned by foreign companies, such as Egypt and Syria, based in Delaware, United States. One of these ships was discovered in March 2006 engaged in smuggling migrants off the coast of Europe. Under sanctions that went into effect in May 2006, the companies were required to cancel their registrations with North Korea and seek new registrations with other countries.

The new threat
With the CSC no longer able to grant registrations and Cambodia and South Korea’s progressively warmer relationship, North Korea has been forced to look elsewhere to register its ships. According to The Straits Times, at least 40 nations in the world engage in flags of convenience; many of them willing to flag North Korean ships for a price. North Korea does business with several of them, but a surprising replacement for Cambodia has apparently been found – Mongolia, a land-locked nation.

However, following North Korea’s nuclear test in October of last year, Mongolia’s Ship Registry has urged ships under its flag to abide by the United Nations resolution against North Korea. It is unclear what effect this has had on North Korean ships registered with Mongolia.

In addition to the North Korean threat of nuclear weapons, it has been speculated that North Korea may have the ability to launch modified missiles from its submarines and cargo ships. North Korean-flagged ships would be more susceptible to being stopped and searched by United Nations forces, but ships under FOC might pass unnoticed through surveillance and pose a significant threat to the enemies of the Pyongyang government and to the reputations of the governments which flagged them.