www.nkoreaconsulting.com | Case Study: Tracking Maritime Oil Flows into North Korea
NK Consulting’s case study on North Korea’s oil tanker movements helped shed light on a previously opaque and politicized topic: where does North Korea get its oil from?
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Tracking Maritime Oil Flows into North Korea

Analysis of oil tanker movements shed light on where North Korea gets its oil from

NK Consulting’s case study on North Korea’s oil tanker movements helped shed light on a previously opaque and politicized topic: where does North Korea get its oil from?

While China, historically thought of the North’s most significant energy patron, publishes some trade data on its oil exports to the DPRK, analysts have historically expressed concern that the numbers are subject to omission and manipulation.

Using commercial ship tracking technology and numerous open source and private maritime databases, NK Consulting was able to locate the DPRK’s fleet of oil tankers and follow their movements. Using this primary data it was possible to create minimum estimates for volumes shipped from North Korea’s neighbours, and for the first time establish the secretive country’s primary maritime oil routes.


Russia’s Influence

Analysis of vessel movements, cross referenced with ship inspection databases revealed that contrary to previous estimation, the majority of North Korea’s seaborne oil currently comes from Russia, not China.

North Korea dedicates the majority of its tanker fleet to short journeys between Russia’s far eastern terminals in Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai and Vostochny. After loading at these terminals, the DPRK fleet often moved down North Korea’s north-eastern coast, likely towards offloading facilities in Chongjin.

Other vessels were observed making the longer journey to Nampho, North Korea’s primary oil terminal on its western coast.

By careful observation of the Russian trade route, NK consulting was able create the first estimates of Russia’s oil trade with North Korea, not based on official customs data.


China’s Crude

Throughout 2014, North Korea watchers and journalists speculated on the disappearance of crude oil shipments from China’s official trade data. On paper, North Korea’s largest energy supplier appeared to cease its deliveries in December 2013, leaving the DPRK without with its traditional half a million tons per year.

NK Consulting’s case study however contradicted this, and provided direct evidence that crude oil was still moving between the DPRK and its northern neighbor.

Close investigation of North Korea’s oil fleet found that the Nam San 8, though small by international standards, was labelled as a crude oil tanker in two separate maritime databases. The DPRK ship can often be seen loading in Dalian, China’s massive oil terminal that lies just 600km straight across the yellow sea from Nampho.

Analysis of the ships movements showed that while China had stopped announcing its crude shipments, at least a fifth of the previously reported total was still quietly making its way into the DPRK’s refineries aboard the 3000 ton Nam San 8.


Oil Fleet

Many North Korea watchers were surprised to find that North Korea had at least 17 tankers. While dwarfed by the super tankers that can be seen sailing from the world’s major exporters, North Korea’s fleet partially make up for by plying much shorter trade routes.

During its investigation, NK Consulting also collected data on the North Korea’s oil fleet characteristics, the companies which own them and estimated the DPRK’s total capacity to transport oil by sea. The estimates generated helped shed led on how much oil North Korea received by pipeline from the Chinese city of Dandong, on the border between the two countries.

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