Since the United Nations Security Council first imposed a cap on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) imports of refined petroleum in 2017, the DPRK has deliberately and repeatedly evaded these sanctions, including by smuggling oil through ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas.
For the past four years, a collection of partners led by the United States has been working together to disrupt these smuggling operations, which support the DPRK regime’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs, threatening international peace and security.
For years, the UN Security Council has routinely condemned the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile ventures through multiple Security Council resolutions, imposing an obligation on the regime to cease all such activity. These resolutions impose a wide variety of measures on the DPRK.
The UN Security Council’s most recent resolution—adopted in December 2017—prohibits all DPRK coal exports and caps the total amount of refined petroleum products the DPRK may import at 500,000 barrels per year. Despite these international sanctions, assessments indicate the DPRK breaches that cap every year through elaborate black-market networks across the region and clandestine ship-to-ship transfers. In 2021, 50 UN member states co-sponsored a message to the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea calling attention to the fact that the DPRK had exceeded its refined petroleum cap.
In order to combat the DPRK’s flagrant violations of UN Security Council-imposed sanctions, the Pacific Security Maritime Exchange (PSMX) was created. Since 2018, the United States has supported this information-sharing initiative with fellow PSMX partners Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and the United Kingdom—all of whom recognize that the DPRK’s subversion of international sanctions must not go unchecked.
For the past four years, PSMX partner nations have been monitoring DPRK sanctions evasion activities. A key component of the PSMX is its Enforcement Coordination Cell, which hosts personnel from PSMX partner countries to facilitate and enhance collaboration. Partners use the Enforcement Coordination Cell to monitor the DPRK’s illicit activities at sea and in the air, and to coordinate activities to track and disrupt those illicit actions.
The PSMX prevents the DPRK from skirting UN sanctions by:
- Identifying smuggling ships. The PSMX partners identify, track, and report on dozens of vessels involved in the illicit smuggling of oil, leading to many of these vessels ultimately getting scrapped.
- Raising the cost of sanctions evasions. Identifying smuggling ships raises the cost for the DPRK to undermine UN sanctions, forcing the DPRK to attempt to create ever more intricate smuggling networks, usually involving multiple vessels, to transfer just one load of oil.
- Disrupting black market networks. By identifying illicit maritime activity, the PSMX helps disband entire networks of people and entities helping the DPRK violate UN sanctions.
This important multinational initiative plays a key role in thwarting the DPRK’s attempts to evade sanctions and conduct illicit transfers of oil on the high seas. The United States is committed to working closely with its partners to improve global nuclear security and strengthen international peace. Only by working together can we make progress toward a safer world.
Kathryn Crummitt is an intern in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.