There are a number of publically-available maritime vessel tracking technologies used for commercial purposes; they also have applications for maritime safety, international security, and surveillance. (A great example of these services is NK News’ Live North Korea Ship Tracking platform.) Last year’s seizure of the Chong Chon Gang and its contraband cargo was a case study in how to observe erratic and suspicious patterns in ship-tracking data, including the practice of switching off the vessel’s required Automatic Identification System (AIS) for long periods to avoid detection.
In a nice piece of investigative journalism, Claudia Rosett at Forbes has come across another North Korean ship charting a somewhat suspicious course. The Mu Du Bong, a North Korea-flagged cargo ship, called near Cuba late last month, then fell off the radar–literally–for nine days before blipping back in Havana and then steaming its way through the Gulf of Mexico. Besides the relatively rare occurrence of North Korean ships in the Western hemisphere, Rosset shows the complexity of North Korean supply chains. She tracks the registered owners to a Thai trading company sympathetic with the Songbun cause, as well as a Pyongyang-based shipping company which Japanese authorities have associated with illicit exports of WMD-related contraband.
The Forbes story stops short of accusing the Mu Du Bong of being on a smuggling run a la the Chong Chon Gang; there is no way to observe cargo. Rather she concludes that “in dispatching the Mu Du Bong via the Panama Canal to Cuba, Pyongyang is at the very least sticking a thumb in America’s eye, and quite possibly testing the waters for future smuggling runs.”
However, the Mu Du Bong’s mission could be entirely benign and have nothing to do with the US. Cuba and North Korea are allies and trade partners that have been engaged in both licit and illicit transactions; the bulk of the cargo on the Chong Chon Gang was sugar. As the DPRK makes a concerted effort to diversify its economic relations away from China, its not unreasonable to assume that we will be seeing more vessels like the Mu Du Bong steaming their way through the Gulf of Mexico into friendly waters. Our prediction: watch for possible traffic with Venezuela.