The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is investigating claims that North Korea has been carrying out a sophisticated process of vessel identity laundering. The novel tactic is detailed in a 56-page report from C4ADS, a Washington DC-based nonprofit organisation dedicated to data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting of conflict and security issues worldwide.
What C4ADS has unearthed is a process in which one or more vessels adopt a different identity on automatic identification system (AIS) transmissions in order to allow sanctions-hit ships to assume clean identities, and involves at least one vessel in this operation assuming an identity that is obtained by defrauding the IMO.
Vessel identity laundering is significantly more sophisticated than previously observed instances of vessel identity tampering, in which vessels modify their physical appearance or broadcast false data on AIS transmissions.
“Given its complexity, vessel identity laundering presents unprecedented challenges for maritime regulators and risks undermining global shipping practices,” the C4ADS report states.
In recent years, C4ADS has observed at least 11 ships engaging in elaborate schemes to create fraudulent ship registrations with the IMO, which are subsequently used to launder the identity of vessels that have been associated with illicit activities.
“Vessel identity laundering operations present a new and unexpected challenge; they strike at the IMO’s cataloguing and management of the global fleet, a system that all maritime stakeholders are dependent on for accurate record-keeping and identification of ships worldwide,” the report warns, going on to show detailed examples of how North Koreans hijacked the IMO registration process to issue a registered identity and IMO number to non-existent vessels, which in turn can be used to disguise the identity of other IMO-registered ships. In one recent case, the North Koreans were able to fob off authorities claiming a 30-year-old ship was in fact a newbuild.
The two processes uncovered by C4ADS are outlined in diagrams below.
C4ADS has urged the IMO and shipping registers to implement stricter regulatory standards and due diligence checks in the registration and operation of the global shipping fleet, suggesting the UN body should require resubmission of vessel photographs and current details from operators at regular intervals for ships to maintain their registration, and deregister non-compliant vessels.
The IMO has also been urged to publish a list of vessels that are purged from the global fleet, to ensure that it is broadly known that those vessels are no longer IMO-registered, and illicit actors cannot exploit their identities.
Likewise, a list of IMO numbers that are cancelled and vessels whose registrations are rescinded ought to be made public, the authors of the report suggest.
Given how AIS tampering is an increasingly widespread tactic used to obfuscate the activity and identity of ships that participate in illicit activities, the report also recommends that the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee should coordinate a working group to develop hardware and software security standards for preventing the tampering of AIS transponders.
The IMO has said that it is reviewing its ship registration process.