Tale of the Bai Mei 8: Detecting Illegal Coal Exports in North Korea

Apr 19, 2018 · 5 min read

Despite tough international sanctions aimed at halting the flow of resources to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, illegal export activity persists across North Korea’s ports. In fact, a report to the UN sanctions committee found that North Korea profited around $200 million last year from banned commodity exports.

Capturing illegal activity on the high seas can be like finding a moving needle in a moving haystack. Of the thousands of ships traveling in international waters, those engaged in illegal or questionable activities can choose to “go dark” by turning off or spoofing their Automatic Identification Signals (AIS) that track their whereabouts. On the ground, vessels can change name and ownership information via shell corporations to obfuscate their dealings.

The travels of the Bai Mei 8, a Chinese bulk vessel carrier, offers a case study in how North Korea has continued to export coal internationally and how frequent, high-resolution satellite imagery can corroborate evidence and establish patterns of activity that go unreported in open sources.

Nampo Port on the Taedong River on the Yellow Sea coast of North Korea. Imaged by a Planet RapidEye satellite on August 31, 2017. ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

In February 2017, China banned all imports of coal from North Korea, effectively cutting off the DPRK’s most important export partner. Nampo Port, which is situated at the mouth of the Taedong River, is North Korea’s largest maritime trading hub and home to bulk shipping containers. According to Allsource Analysis, there are several tell-tale signs of coal export that can be identified with SkySat imagery.

An unidentified ship loads coal at a quay in Nampo, North Korea, on March 11, 2018. ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

According to Allsource, Nampo Port includes one dock dedicated to loading coal onto bulk cargo vessels, and a nearby road-served quay to the southwest that probably facilitates coal transshipments.

The coal transfer dock lies at the end of a coal receiving area served by two rail lines and equipped with two large cranes and several smaller cranes and other equipment. Coal is probably shipped from northern mines by rail to a coal receiving area between the two rail lines and adjacent to the coal loading dock.

Cranes then move the coal to a probable conveyor system running through the coal receiving area, where it is transported to a dock equipped with a portable conveyor that loads the coal to berthed bulk cargo vessels.

The Bai Mai 8

There are a number of distinguishing vessel characteristics of the Bai Mei 8 that can be detected in satellite imagery.

Characteristics of the Bai Mei 8 based on SkySat imagery captured July 6, 2017. ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Journey of the Bai Mei 8

Data Source: Windward; US Foreign Affairs Committee

On June 6, 2017, the Bai Mei 8 departs from Lianyungang, China, and declares Vladivostok, Russia, as its destination. In the middle of the Yellow Sea, the Bai Mei 8 turns off AIS signal before heading toward Nampo, North Korea.

Planet SkySat satellites capture the arrival of the Bai Mei 8 to Nampo Port on June 16, 2017. A day later, satellite imagery shows coal being loaded into the Bai Mei 8’s cargo hold via a portable conveyor, according to Allsource Analysis.

Planet’s SkySat satellites captured the Bai Mei 8 loading coal in Nampo, North Korea on June 16 (left ) and 17 (right). ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

The Bai Mei 8 departs Nampo Port after June 17, 2017, activates its AIS signal on June 19, 2017, and makes its way to Vladivostok Port in Russia. The Bai Mei 8 arrives four days later, corroborated by PlanetScope imagery.

The Bai Mei 8 at port in Vladivostok, Russia on June 24, 2017. ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

According to US government intelligence, the Bai Mei 8 likely departs Vladivostok Port on June 25, 2017 with the Ningbo, China, as its destination. It arrives there on June 30, 2017, when its AIS signal is detected.

Nine days later, on July 6, 2017, Bai Mei 8 is seen most likely loading coal at Nampo Port’s coal transfer dock in July 2017 — an event not reported in open sources.

The Bai Mei 8 loading coal at Nampo on July 6, 2017, after returning from Ningbo, China. ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

An evolving story

Frequent, global satellite imagery for ship detection and maritime surveillance is not only valuable for understanding a single event, but also for establishing when activity becomes a pattern and the consistency of that behavior. Further analysis of Planet imagery by Allsource revealed additional instances of possible coal transfer at Nampo Port between July 2017 and January 2018.

Recent reporting suggests that China has clamped down on all imports from North Korea, including coal, iron, and seafood. Meanwhile, discussions of denuclearization have crystalized into a commitment from Kim Jong Un’s adminstration. At Nampo Port, large-scale construction projects to upgrade the port facilities, including a non-traditional coal storage area according to NK News, have continued apace.

Planet SkySat imagery comparison of Nampo Port between February 21, 2017 and March 2, 2018.

Planet‘s ability to monitor key ports, waterways, and transportation hubs on a daily basis can help provide evidence and counter-evidence to the evolving narrative.

To learn more about Planet’s daily monitoring capabilities for global geopolitical events, visit our Defense & Intelligence page.

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All images ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.
Geospatial Analysis: Allsource Analysis
Map Source: Windward, US Foreign Affairs Committee
Support from Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

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