A satellite photograph taken outside North Korea’s largest port in late 2020 shows a small cargo ship carrying what looks to be a missile shaped object on its deck.

Measuring approximately 10 meters in the length, the seemingly cylindrical white object also seems to have a pointed tip and guidance fins at the base.

But without additional and higher resolution satellite images, it is difficult to make definitve conclusions. The vessel’s cargo may have also been part of a broader trend which saw North Korea import other sanctioned industrial equipment and machinery on small, unregistered, and difficult to trace ships.

A small ship outside the West Sea Barrage on October 23, 2020, with a missile shaped object on its deck. Image: Google Earth

Missileaneous Cargo

The white object visible on the cargo ship appears to take up a substantial portion of the available deck space, though does not seem to be part of a larger mounting or system.

If the object were a missile, it would also raise the question of whether the ship was transporting it or if the system had been fitted onto a non-military craft, an unlikely though apparently not impossible scenario given Pyongyang’s recent and rather unusual interest in railway-borne missile launches.

But another, higher resolution image of what looks to be the same vessel taken a later date does not show the cylindrical object on its deck. This indicates that the object was not fixed or attached to the structure of the vessel, raising the likelihood that it is a cargo of some kind.

The small craft which measures approximately 50 meters in length can be seen in several images of the Nampho area taken in 2021.

The vessel carrying the white object and a later image taken on May 5, 2021 showing a very similar vessel waiting in the Nampho area.

Barge by Another Name

While making a conclusive assessment of the transported object is challenging without higher resolution satellite imagery, the timing of the 2020 photograph is in line with Pyongyang’s practice of moving sanctioned items into the DPRK via small and difficult to track vessels.

Unregistered barges were North Korea’s go-to for such transfers, with Pyongyang first using the vessels to export large volumes of coal in breach of UN resolutions. The barges were not designed for longer ocean-going trips and subsequently lacked the distinguishing features, identifiers, and registration documentation that open-source investigators could use to track down the networks of companies and individuals operating them.

The technique was apparently so successful that North Korea began using the barges to transport other sanctioned items, including machinery, vehicles, and industrial equipment.

A so far unreported image shows one such barge approaching Nampho also in late 2020, laden with probable sanctions-breaching cargo.

A barge outside Nampho carrying probable industrial equipment in late 2020.

The small vessel carrying the white missile-like object appears to have characteristics in common with both the barges and more traditional cargo ships. Although it has a pointed prow and covered holds more suited to the open ocean, it also appears to lack lifeboats and the more complex navigational equipment seen on its larger brethren.

One of the primary advantages of using such a vessel over a barge may be safety and reliability. North Korean vessels generally rank among the least safe in the world, and the unregistered barges must compound the risk of losing lives and cargo as they sit low in the water and lack hold covers, potentially allowing them to be easily swamped in anything but the calmest seas. Any vitally important cargos would be more secure in a more traditional cargo vessel, even a North Korean one.

But while North Korea does have a few ships on its books matching the approximate dimensions of the small craft, most of them are fishing vessels or refrigerated cargo ships that do not appear to frequently venture into international waters, indicating that, like its barge counterparts, this smaller vessel may also not be a regular part of the DPRK’s international merchant fleet.

On Hold

Despite the barges’ success within the context of North Korea’s sanctions evasions programs, the UN Panel of Experts’ (PoE) most recent published report noted that the use of such unregistered vessels was abruptly curtailed in 2021.

Though the report did not specify if the absence covered only foreign barges, it would seem to align with additional findings that foreign-flagged tankers are no longer directly visiting the Nampho port area, instead having to wait outside the West Sea Barrage. Between them, the two data points could indicate that some form of COVID measures preventing foreign vessels from docking at North Korean ports may be in place.

Several satellite images taken in the first half of 2021 show the small ship located within West Sea Barrage—likely confirming its North Korean origin—with a later photograph also showing that the vessel may have been refurbished in some way, with an additional covering at the stern of ship.

Images of the probable same vessel undergoing refurbishment of some type. Image: Google Earth

Such additions or repairs to the vessel may highlight that North Korea wants to continue using the ship in its illicit programs.

Further satellite imagery taken in late November shows a pier that was a previous drop off point for barges piled high with probable sanctioned cargos.

A November image showing the pier previously identified as a barge drop off point still loaded with probable sanctions-breaking cargo. Image: Maxar Technologies.

With no foreign barges apparently able to deliver such goods, it seems probable that North Korea may have had to resort to its own vessels once again to do some of the sanctioned heavy lifting. And with so many of its ships identified via satellite imagery, Pyongyang may be digging deeper into its limited vessel catalogue, with the small cargo ship and its odd missile-shaped cargo a likely part of these plans.

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.