Impact Stories

CRDF Global Leads Capacity-Building Workshop for Port, Customs, & Coast Guard Officials to Interdict North Korean Shipping in Central and South America

By Raquel Mac Donald

CRDF Global traveled to Panama City, Panama this October to deliver a three-day training to naval, customs, coast guard, and other maritime organizations’ staff on preventing maritime sanctions evasion in Latin America. With the generous support of Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) Weapons Threat Reduction Program (WTRP), CRDF Global, Key Bridge Advisors (KBA), and Compliance and Capacity Skills International (CCSI) were able to engage 31 participants from both Panama and El Salvador. From October 3, 2022 through October 5, 2022, CRDF Global, in partnership with KBA and CCSI, trained participants on a variety of topics related to maritime sanctions compliance, including methods of identification and interdiction of illicit North Korean shipping activities, how to respond to North Korean sanctions evasion tactics, and how to leverage the Automatic Identification System (AIS) information to identify transponder abuse.

As a result of the training, participants increased their counterproliferation skills in a variety of areas, including using open-source investigative tools and techniques, analyzing and tracing cargo, and determining routes and merchandise that are often targeted by North Korea. The audience was able to benefit not only from the extensive expertise of CRDF Global and its partners, but also from interactions with other participants as they worked to build networks to help combat North Korean maritime sanctions evasion.

North Korean Maritime Sanctions Evasion in Panama and El Salvador

In 2013, Panamanian authorities detained a ship named Chong Chon Gang after it had mysteriously disappeared from satellite tracking as the ship approached Havana, Cuba. Originally under suspicion of drug trafficking, Panamanian authorities quickly discovered Soviet-era ballistic missiles, airplanes, and other weapons parts hidden in secret compartments under bags of sugar. This sanctioned military equipment was being shipped from Cuba to North Korea for repair, violating United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1718 and 1874, which prohibit the import of North Korean weapons and the export of weapons to North Korea. Panama detained the crew and would eventually charge three crew members, including the captain, with weapons smuggling, and later would release the ship back to North Korea for a $700,000 USD fine. In 2022, a UN Panel of Experts report discussed several instances of ship-to-ship transfers that took place while sailing under Panamanian flags. El Salvador has a history of trade with North Korea, primarily importing sanctioned materials like iron and various machinery, as outlined in the United Nations Panel of Experts report from 2020. With an improved ability to identify and prevent North Korean illicit maritime activity, both countries will be better able to protect themselves from secondary sanctions while serving as a major obstacle to the DPRK’s efforts to illegally pursue its nuclear program.

Addressing the North Korean Proliferation Threat Through Capacity Building

To help combat the threat posed by North Korean sanctions evasion, CRDF Global and its partners developed a comprehensive three-day agenda covering a wide range of information and skills necessary for a strong sanctions compliance regime. Participants were welcomed into the training with opening remarks by Barry Bristman, First Secretary at the Embassy of Canada to the Republic of Panama. Then, KBA experts Dr. Don Henry and Ms. Whitney Kalmbach started the training, beginning with a section on the history of United Nations sanctions and their role in restricting the nuclear weapons threat from North Korea. Dr. John Holmes followed this with an introduction to international instruments, and how domestic legal frameworks can help with the implementation of the obligations prescribed in these instruments. Captain (ret.) Neil Watts, CCSI Senior Expert Trainer on Maritime Security and Surface Weapons Systems, and Ms. Maiko Takeuchi, CCSI Senior Expert Trainer on WMDs, who are also both former UN Panel of Experts members, then delved into maritime measures and trends, specifically focusing on case studies of North Korean concealment of their links to vessels, ship-to-ship transfers, and vessel identity manipulation. Captain Watts and Ms. Takeuchi concluded the day by discussing methods of obfuscation employed by North Korea, spending additional time on AIS manipulation tactics and the use of maritime-oriented open-source research platforms, such as GISIS and Equasis, to identify possible instances of illicit activity.

On day two, participants began the day with case studies of illicit North Korean shipping activities, which allowed for participants to ask questions regarding the legal options available for sanction enforcement. Dr. Holmes then presented information on vessel and cargo targeting, which was helpful for participants in the risk assessment sector as specific examples were provided and participants were able to critically assess complex cases of sanctions evasion. This session was followed by a deep dive into strategic trade control enforcement as well as United Nation Office of Drugs and Crime Port and Air Control Units, including information on the dangers of strategic goods, which are goods that are or could be used for military purposes and therefore have trade restrictions placed on them. In this session, participants were able to share their own examples and experiences, allowing them to learn from each other as well as the presenters.

In the afternoon of day two, participants got to hear from guest speaker Rigoberto Reyes, intelligence analyst from the Panamanian Aeronaval Service, who briefed them on the Chong Chon Gang case. This presentation sparked a lively discussion on the legal consequences of violating United Nations sanctions as well as the role of various agencies in sanctions enforcement. Participants continued with a session on cargo and vessel red flag indicators as well as the importance of interagency and international cooperation, and information-sharing mechanisms. Finally, Captain Watts presented on the exploitation of flag states, flag hopping, and best practices and guidance to combat these issues, which concluded the lecture portion of the training.

The last day of training was focused on tabletop exercises, encouraging audience participation and application of the materials discussed throughout the training. As participants from different countries and agencies worked together to identify suspicious vessels and cargo, they were able to discuss different viewpoints and techniques. As noted by CRDF Global Project Associate Jordan Chase, “the teamwork developed throughout the day proved to be invaluable and aptly demonstrated the benefits of interagency coordination and information sharing.” At the conclusion of the training, all participants received certificates of completion alongside a wealth of documents and resources that they were able to take back to their home countries and agencies, allowing for the impact of this training to reach beyond the participants’ personal experiences.

Participants were very positive about their training experience, indicating across the board that their knowledge of deceptive shipping practices had improved, and that the organization of the training was excellent. Three areas—namely open-source investigative tools and techniques, methods to analyze and trace cargo, and knowledge of the routes and merchandise that are susceptible to sanctions evasion risk—were especially valuable as participants felt that these areas would contribute most to their ability to combat sanctions evasion. Nearly half of the participants were women and there was a balanced mix of genders of expert trainers, helping achieve CRDF Global and Global Affairs Canada’s efforts to promote gender equality in the fields of sanctions compliance and international security.

Given the success of this training, and with ample participant interest in attending future CRDF Global engagements, CRDF Global will, in partnership with Global Affairs Canada, Key Bridge Advisors, and Compliance and Capacity Skills International, continue to pursue capacity-building trainings in Central and South America, thereby countering North Korean proliferation and maritime sanctions evasion.

Raquel Mac Donald is a Project Associate on the DPRK Counterproliferation Team at CRDF Global and a graduate student at Arizona State University in the Program Evaluation and Data Analytics program.