A U.S. sanctioned North Korean vessel transporting coal in breach of UN resolutions ran aground on the Chinese coastline in September last year, after which the ship appears to have been abandoned and scrapped.

With UN sanctions prohibiting transfers of both coal and vessels, it seems unclear how the derelict vessel on the Chinese shore would not put Beijing in breach on the UN’s resolutions. And with no accident reports filed to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) nor accompanying media reports, the apparent radio silence around the incident does little to help China’s case.

Unsuccessful Voyage

In their most recent report, the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) tasked with monitoring cases of North Korean sanctions evasion noted how the DPRK registered ship Ryon Hwa 3 made its way to the Zhoushan Port area near Shanghai, a well-documented hotspot for illicit North Korean coal transfers.

Image: UN Panel of Experts

Although the UN is typically careful with its language, the PoE report appears unequivocal that the Ryo Hwa 3 was indeed involved in exporting coal in breach of UN resolutions, reportedly working under a smuggling arrangement with a Hong Kong domiciled company called Hong Kong Great Fortune and Development.

The North Korean ship is also designated by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), for “operating in the transportation, mining, energy, and financial services industries in the North Korean economy.” While OFAC designations do not entail port bans like their UN counterparts, they can make any transactions involving the vessel challenging.

The PoE noted the vessel’s journey to Chinese waters, which at first glance seemed like any other coal smuggling run. The vessel appeared on tracking systems apparently headed away from North Korea towards the Shanghai area, with automatic information system (AIS) tracking data from the Pole Star Space Applications tracking platform showing the usual black outs as the ship approached its destination and navigated through some of the world’s busiest waterways.

The Ryon Hwa 3’s last voyage in September 2021. Image Pole Star Space Applications.

But instead of heading back to North Korea, satellite imagery obtained by the PoE shows that the sanctioned ship ran aground on the coast of a small Chinese island on September 18, 2021.

Image: UN Panel of Experts

Subsequent satellite imagery taken over the intervening months shows that the Ryon Hwa 3 was then scrapped in situ. A photograph taken on December 18 shows the ship in a poor state of affairs with its loading cranes removed and the ship possibly scuppered with water filling the hold.

The Ryon Hwa 3 with no cranes and apparently scuppered. Image: Sky Sat

Another December image taken a few days later shows some type of covering over the partially submerged vessel. Though the purpose is not exactly clear, it perhaps is in an indication that some type of salvage work might have been ongoing during this period.

On December 29, satellite imagery showed some type of covering over the vessel. Image: Maxar

One further image taken a month later shows the vessel almost fully submerged, with whatever salvage operations apparently complete.

The almost fully submerged Ryon Hwa 3 on January 19. Image: Maxar


While such ignoble ends are not uncommon for North Korea’s merchant vessels and accidents among coal smugglers are not unheard of, the Ryon Hwa 3’s abandonment raises further questions of Beijing’s commitment to UN sanctions enforcement.

If the vessel was transferred to a Chinese person or entity for scrapping, this would breach UN Resolution 2270, as member states must “prohibit their nationals, persons subject to their jurisdiction and entities incorporated in their territory or subject to their jurisdiction … from owning, leasing, operating” any North Korean registered vessel.

Although the vessel may have been abandoned and claimed as salvage, a legitimate claim would have required the crew to be in some type of peril. This presumably would have required some type of rescue operation, potentially involving nearby vessels and local authorities, which raises further questions as to why there is no accompanying report in the International Maritime Organization’s accident database.

It also seems an odd coincidence that the vessel was abandoned on the shore of an island with very large vessel assembly facilities, presumably equipped with all the necessary apparatus to rapidly dissemble the sanctioned North Korean ship.

The Ryon Hwa 3 was abandoned just a short distance from the several large vessel construction facilities. Image: Google Earth

Safety inspections of North Korean vessels have been a rarity in recent years, but Port State Control records do show the sanctioned ship was inspected six months prior to its abandonment, where it was found to have 20 deficiencies.

Although an improvement on the 40 found three years prior at its last inspection, the Ryon Hwa 3 had problems with its documentation, ballast water management system, communications equipment, life saving appliances and safety of navigation systems.

Such deficiencies are not uncommon for North Korean ships, and neither are accidents. The DPRK is infamous for fielding one of the world’s least safe merchant fleets, and that was true even before most of their ships began sailing without broadcasting their locations.

While it is difficult to ascertain the exact circumstances from satellite imagery and tracking data alone, it seems likely that the Ryon Hwa 3 suffered some type of accident or failure that meant it could not make the journey back to its home port in North Korea.

Such accidents no doubt put Beijing in a difficult position, as later UN resolutions have clear and strict requirements detailing the interdiction of North Korean ships. China tends to be willfully blind of sanctions breaches in its waters, even though UN resolutions do give member state powers to interdict vessels at sea if they are believed to be breaching sanctions. With a PoE identified, U.S. designated coal smuggler washing up directly on its beaches, Beijing’s willful blindness in this case may have strayed over the line into a full violation of UN resolutions.

About Leo Byrne

Leo Byrne is an expert on North Korea's maritime sanctions evasion practices and the former data and analytic director at Korea Risk Group. His work has appeared in reports from the UN Panel of Experts, RUSI, C4ADS, and the Asan Institute.