SINGAPORE —The Dawnlight, a steel-hulled bulk carrier outfitted with large gray cranes, looks no different from the many other container ships that ply East Asia’s busy shipping lanes, heading in and out of the bustling port of Singapore.
But the Dawnlight is not just any container ship: It’s a ship that has been suspected of illegal dealings with North Korea. It was blacklisted by the United States last year because it was owned by a Singaporean company alleged to have helped Pyongyang with its weapons program, and then sold two months later, according to the company.
The ship continues to shuttle between Singapore and the Korean Peninsula, with occasional diversions to China, according to data reviewed by The Washington Post.
The Dawnlight has traveled to the peninsula nine times over the past 31 / 2 months, the data shows. Its ultimate destinations were unclear, though, because even on trips when the crew logged a North Korean port as its goal, the radar and satellite data examined by The Post showed it appearing to turn around off the coast of South Korea and make its way back without having called at a port.
The Dawnlight’s previous owners insist the ship has carried only commercial cargo. The new, Hong Kong-based owner could not be contacted.
While international sanctions against North Korea prohibit trade involving certain goods, such as those that could be used in conventional or nuclear weapons programs, general commercial trade is permitted. And with its nascent market economy, the country has more reason than ever to do business abroad. But inspection regimes in the region’s busy ports are selective, making it hard to determine what is being shipped to North Korea.
As the international community considers how to punish Pyongyang for last month’s nuclear test and this month’s long-range rocket launch by further isolating it from the outside world, and specifically by cutting off its access to outside nuclear and missile technology, shipping is emerging as a focal point.
In unilateral sanctions, Japan has barred North Korean ships from its ports, as well as third-country ships that have visited North Korea. South Korea, which already bans North Korean-flagged ships, is also considering extending this blockade to include vessels that have recently called at the northern half of the peninsula. Expanded U.S. sanctions that President Obama signed into law Thursday don’t take this step but require the administration to report on foreign seaports and airports with “deficient” inspections of vessels originating from North Korea. Democratic and Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the bill last week, and Obama signed the legislation away from the news media Thursday.
“Doing this wouldn’t just crack down on North Korea, it would also be for our own protection,” said Chun Yung-woo, national security adviser in the last South Korean administration, talking about Seoul’s actions. “Ships are the best way North Korea has for delivering nuclear weapons.”
But the difficulty of monitoring the Dawnlight underlines the limits of international sanctions. The ship could be operating entirely legitimately. But the questions remain: What is the Dawnlight carrying? Where is it going? And who even owns it?
China, which shares a long land border North Korea, is by far its largest trading partner. But most of the goods heading to North Korea by sea come through Southeast Asian transshipment hubs. Singapore, one of the biggest, relies on speed and efficiency to maintain its competitive edge. Cargo lists are not publicly available, and inspections are generally conducted only when there is intelligence to suggest a breach of international sanctions.
“In Southeast Asia, it’s very hard to see what’s going on,” said a former Western diplomat who has dealt with North Korea for years and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works in a related field. He described the implementation of sanctions as “patchy.” “Are they turning a blind eye to things going through, or is it just too difficult to stop things?” he said.
When enforcing sanctions, the Singaporeans make a clear distinction: While they will enforce multilateral orders, they will not uphold U.S. sanctions unless the targeted company has also broken local laws.
“We generally ignore unilateral sanctions,” said a former Singaporean official who was involved in enforcement and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his current work. He described periods when his office would receive daily emails from U.S. officials asking for action. “American requests come in at such a volume, we have to be very selective on how we act on them,” he said. “We have millions of containers coming through every day.”
The case of the Dawnlight encapsulates the problem. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Senat Shipping, a Singaporean company, and its president, Leonard Lai, in July, saying the company was working with North Korean entities that procure weapons for the regime. In the process, the Treasury Department blacklisted the Dawnlight, then owned by Senat, meaning that U.S. individuals and companies were prohibited from doing any business involving the company or the ship.
Senat protested the designation, saying that all of its dealings pertained to the legal shipment of commercial commodities and that it had not had a “business relationship” with North Korea since late 2011.
The company was not sanctioned by the United Nations, meaning that Senat and Lai were allowed to operate in and out of Singapore — including sending ships to North Korea.
In November, The Post started monitoring the Dawnlight using data collated by MarineTraffic, a community-based, online ship-tracking service.
All ships submit data through the automatic identification system, or AIS, which pings radar stations when a vessel is in range or allows detection by satellites when ships are in the right place.
Tracking ships traveling to North Korea is inherently challenging, because the North does not have radar stations that feed into the international ship-tracking system and satellite coverage in that part of Asia can be spotty. Still, many vessels are routinely recorded by satellite calling at North Korean ports.
Although it is against international regulations, a ship’s crew can turn off the AIS, ensuring that it will not be tracked. On some of its voyages, the Dawnlight generated extremely limited AIS data even in areas far from the Korean Peninsula with reliable radar and satellite coverage.
Using the signals that were sent and logged, The Post observed the Dawnlight make nine journeys that brought it close to North Korea — from Singapore and, in one case, from Chinese ports along the Yangtze River — but never tracked it docking in North Korea.
“The vessel may very well have gone into a North Korean port, but because we don’t have any antennas in the vicinity, for obvious reasons we have no idea what’s going on there with that ship,” Argyris Stasinakis, a partner at MarineTraffic, said of one of those journeys.
On its latest trip, the Dawnlight sailed to Busan, at the southern edge of the Korean Peninsula, before turning around Sunday and backtracking without calling at a port, according to AIS data. Its original destination, as declared by the crew via the AIS, was the Japanese port of Chiba, near Tokyo.
But on Friday morning it had changed its destination and was at Jingjiang, a Chinese port on the Yangtze.
The Post approached Senat and Lai, who authorized his attorney to respond to questions. The attorney, Thong Chee Kun, said Senat never intended to be, and never was, involved in any illegal activities.
Asked about the ship’s journeys to the Korean Peninsula and whether it had gone to North Korea, Thong said that the Dawnlight had been sold in September. He produced a notarized bill of sale signed by Lai and dated Sept. 21, showing that the Mongolian-flagged Dawnlight was sold to a Hong Kong-based shipping company called Bene Star for $2.2 million. Thong also supplied a certificate of deletion from the Mongolia Ship Register dated Aug. 26, 34 days after Senat was sanctioned by the United States, to show that Dawnlight was no longer sailing under a Mongolian flag.
“Since the sale, our clients have no knowledge of the routes it has sailed to, and they are not kept informed of Dawnlight’s operations,” Thong said.
When the Dawnlight was last subject to a spot inspection — at the port of Vanino in Russia’s Far East at the end of October — it was still sailing under a Mongolian flag, according to the Tokyo MOU, the organization that monitors ports in Asia.
Even today, international shipping registries and the Tokyo MOU show the Dawnlight as being owned by Senat and registered in Mongolia, and a U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman said the vessel remains covered by last year’s sanctions. The department had not been informed that Senat had sold the ship.
Thong said the Dawnlight may still be listed as Senat’s property because the new owner has not registered the vessel under a flag.
Efforts to locate Bene Star were not successful. The company has no website and, although it is registered in Hong Kong, there is no phone number listed with its registration and no entry for it in Hong Kong telephone directories. The Post attempted to contact Bene Star using an email address and a phone number in the Chinese port city of Dalian supplied by Thong. There was no response to repeated emails, and the phone number did not work.
Asked why the registries do not bear out the claim of a sale, Thong said Senat would be “taking the necessary steps to request an accurate listing of the information in the relevant databases.”
The Post also tried to ask North Korea’s representatives in Singapore whether its shipping companies had links with Senat, as the U.S. Treasury Department claimed. But the lights were off at the North Korean Embassy’s registered office in the run-down Golden Mile complex, and a neighbor said he had not seen anyone there in at least a month.
For Singapore, which has strong ties with the United States, monitoring North Korean shipping activity presents a challenge, and the government acknowledges the inherent tension between speed and vigilance.
“It’s a delicate balance and one that we want to maintain without choking off legitimate trade or compromising on our counterproliferation efforts,” said one official, speaking on the Singapore government’s customary condition of anonymity.
Recent actions underscore the tough approach that Singapore takes toward middlemen acting for North Korea, he said, referring to the prosecution of Chinpo Shipping, which was found guilty in December of transferring money on behalf of Ocean Maritime Management, a North Korean shipping company sanctioned by both the United States and the United Nations, so that an Ocean Maritime ship could pass through the Panama Canal.
The ship, called the Chong Chon Gang, was intercepted in 2013 on its way from Cuba to North Korea. On board, under 10,000 tons of sugar, were two Soviet-era MiG fighter jets and parts for many more, surface-to-air missile launchers, and antitank rockets. This is the same case that ensnared Senat: It had previously chartered the Chong Chon Gang, although it was not involved with this journey. The Treasury Department sanctioned Senat because of its previous dealings with Ocean Maritime Management, effectively making it guilty by association.
“North Koreans or any other country thinking of using Singapore or Singapore companies for illicit activities in contravention of U.N. sanctions or resolutions will know that Singapore is a no-go zone,” the Singaporean official said. “The outcome of the Chinpo case has good signaling and deterrent effect.”
But as U.S. and U.N. officials formulate a new round of sanctions, diplomats say, it is worth bearing in mind the priorities of countries in the region.
“You often hear the view in Southeast Asia that the more trade and the more economic linkages that are done, the better,” said Euan Graham, a former diplomat who was stationed at the British Embassy in Pyongyang and is now at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “That probably plays some part as well in the resistance to putting sanctions further up the priority list.”