Flags that hide the dirty truth

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.


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