Around the globe, U.S. intelligence agencies are playing an elaborte cat-and-mouse game against a network of smugglers and agents of the North Korean regime. The fight happens in the shadows but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Just last week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on six North Korean ships, 16 individuals, and nine companies that it said had facilitated Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
Last week CIA Director Mike Pompeo cited the “” by U.S. agents that led to stopping some shipments to North Korea. “We have officers all round the world working diligently to make sure we do everything we can to support the U.S. pressure campaign to tighten the sanctions,” he told a small crowd in Washington D.C.
Pompeo's comment brings to mind cloak-and-dagger images: Spies and double agents working crooked businessmen, satellite analysts pouring over images of North Korea, and Navy SEALS monitoring ships. Based on what we know, cracking the black market that supports Kim Jong-un's regime is just as dramatic, but also a lot more nuanced, than a spy thriller.
The Need For Money
North Korea needs cold, hard cash to survive the United Nations sanctions levied against it for developing and testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. There is a web of players across the world that have been enabling them since 2006, when the sanctions began. In the last six months, evidence of this shadow war has reached the media.
Last August the United Nations experts issued a report stating that “prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation” exists between Syria and North Korea, “Two member states interdicted shipments destined for Syria. Another member state informed the panel that it had reasons to believe that the goods were part of a Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation contract with Syria.”
The “member states” who sparked this interdiction were not named, but those with the ability and motive certainly speak to U.S. involvement. Other candidates include South Korea and Japan, who have both raised alarms over at-sea transfers of good from North Korean ships to other flagged vessels. (Japan even caught one with satellite imagery.) Another incident surfaced last year in a report in the Washington Post:
“Last August, a secret message was passed from Washington to Cairo warning about a mysterious vessel steaming toward the Suez Canal. The bulk freighter named Jie Shun was flying Cambodian colors but had sailed from North Korea, the warning said, with a North Korean crew and an unknown cargo shrouded by heavy tarps.”
That cargo turned out to be 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades, which investigators later determined were destined for the Egyptian government. “U.S. officials confirmed that delivery of the rockets was foiled only when U.S. intelligence agencies spotted the vessel and alerted Egyptian authorities through diplomatic channels, forcing them to take action,” the Post says, quoting anonymous government sources.
Eyes Toward the Sea
There’s a good reason these efforts are aimed at ships. They are the primary vehicle for the regime’s international trade. When dealing in coal and other goods, North Korean ships often pull into a port and unload the cargo but another nation’s ships come and cart the goods away, essentially laundering the transaction. North Korean ships can also adopt a flag of convenience to mask their origin points.
These methods, perfected for use in smuggling above-board items, can be used to sell weapons and weapon-making equipment to a world full of eager buyers. However, smuggling by ship opens up an opportunity to use the existing rules of international maritime trade to peel away the subterfuge using commercially available data.
The Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, has been using data from the financial world — including shipping records — to put the investigative spotlight on North Korean smuggling.
“The use of open data, particularly in the maritime domain, can be a powerful tool to shed transparency on what has historically been an opaque threat,” says David Thompson, a senior investigator of North Korean financial schemes for the center.
His group says the “illicit overseas networks used by North Korea for weapons proliferation and the generation of hard currency” are not impossible to dismantle. "We increasingly find these networks to be centralized, limited, and vulnerable."
This quiet but vital intelligence struggle will continue, Pompeo says. The actions happening now may surface in time, but they are ongoing and have become a critical piece of the Trump administration’s North Korea strategy.
“We’re not quite where we need to be,” Popmeo said last week. “Our mission is not complete.”