March 5, 2009: Dr. Hazel Smith

(Click to Enlarge) Dr. Hazel Smith discusses the North Korean shipping fleet.


North Korean Shipping: The Potential for WMD Proliferation?

(Washington D.C.) March 5– The development of nuclear weapons by North Korea (DPRK) is of major concern to the international community. International observers worry not only about the potential threat that North Korea’s possession of a nuclear device poses, but also that the cash-strapped nation might attempt to raise money by smuggling nuclear technology to third parties via its maritime fleet. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Hazel Smith of Cranfield University in the United Kingdom discussed her investigation into North Korea’s merchant fleet and the possibility that it might be used to smuggle weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


Dr. Smith began her investigation into this matter by researching the specifics of North Korea’s shipping fleet. She found that it is possible to collect a large amount of data about North Korea’s vessels, as they are registered with international insurance companies, subject to inspection in foreign ports, and are entered into international shipping databases when they visit foreign ports. North Korea’s shipping fleet is quite small by international standards, and its ships tend to be old, in poor condition, and have comparatively small cargo capacities. North Korean ships, she noted, undergo intense safety inspections in most international ports, and the inspections often conclude that the ships are unseaworthy by international standards and that the conditions that the crew experience are extremely poor.


North Korean ships tend to be owned and managed by North Koreans, an anomaly in an industry where most merchant ships are owned in one country, managed in another, and may carry the flag of yet another. The majority of DPRK ships, though predominately flying the flag of their home country, are not directly owned by the government, but by private companies and other entities. Dr. Smith noted that it is interesting that North Korean vessels have not elected to fly the flag of other countries, taking advantage of the anonymity that this would bring them, given that ships carrying the North Korean flag are constantly subjected to intense inspection in foreign ports.


Dr. Smith’s investigation into North Korea’s merchant fleet led her to question the international concern of wide-spread proliferation activities by North Korean ships. Though the low quality of the ships and the poor conditions and low salaries that the sailors face provide incentive for these crews to engage in illegal activities for profit, the continued poor quality of the ships would indicate that if there is illegal smuggling taking place, it is not making any of the ship owners significantly wealthier. Further, the intense inspections that North Korean ships are subjected to in foreign ports create a disincentive for smuggling activities, as smuggled goods would be easily discovered.


Dr. Smith discussed several reported cases of alleged WMD smuggling by North Korean vessels. She noted that there are fewer incidents than one might expect based on media reports, as many of the reports of these activities are repetitions of the same incident. She also noted that in most documented cases, the items transported by North Korean ships said to be for WMD use are actually dual-use items, meaning that they could be used for WMD purposes or for other, less alarming activities such as agriculture or mining. In another highly-publicized incident, this time in Australia where a North Korean crew was accused of drug smuggling, the charges against the crew were later dropped. Dr. Smith argued that her research does not substantiate that North Korean merchant vessels are engaging in intensive WMD smuggling. She cautioned, however, that her research only covered data available from open-source data networks, and that she did not investigate the activities of North Korean military vessels. She also could not discount the possibility that materials for WMD might be transported by other means, such as airplane or train.


Despite lack of evidence for North Korean WMD smuggling, Dr. Smith stated her belief that the potential for illegal goods smuggling, whether it be drugs or WMD, still exists given the impoverished situation of North Korean crews. She recommended that the international community continue measures to protect itself from such dangers, such as continuing regular safety inspections of ships in foreign ports and perhaps increasing these inspections to cover the cargo that the ships carry. Dr. Smith, who suggested that PSI initiatives are ineffective, recommended that resources from the PSI program might be reallocated to new inspection procedures. This measure, she noted, need not apply to only North Korean vessels, and may be a valuable way to detect terrorist and other illegal shipping activities. Further, she noted that the transportation of some weapons and weapons components is considered legal, but that these shipments should be carefully monitored to determine the end-use of such products. The international community would benefit from increasing its maritime monitoring activities to protect against terrorist, smuggling, and WMD transportation dangers.


Hazel Smith is professor of security and resilience at Cranfield University, UK. She was previously professor of international relations at the University of Warwick (1998 to 2009); POSCO visiting fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu, (Summer 2008); Jennings Randolph Visiting Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, Washington D.C. (2001-2002); and a Fulbright scholar at Stanford University (1994 to 1995). Between 2000 and 2001, Professor Smith worked in the DPRK for the United Nations World Food Program. Her books on North Korea include Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Social Change in North Korea   (2005) and Reconstituting Korean Security: A Policy Primer (2007).