In early May, a NATO warship, searching for Somali pirates in the India Ocean, intercepted and inspected a small North Korean freighter and found fifteen tons of weapons, headed for Eritrea. Both North Korea and Eritrea have UN weapons sanctions on them, so the ship was seized and taken to a nearby port. This was not a unique situation.
Last year, North Korea was caught trying to break the UN weapons embargo on Congo. South Africa revealed that, in late 2009, it seized several containers of spare parts for T-55 tanks. The crew of the French ship transporting the containers were suspicious of the contents, and asked port authorities in South Africa to investigate. The containers had been put on the French ship in Malaysia (a growing center for arms trafficking), and were marked "bulldozer parts." The containers had earlier been shipped from North Korea to China, changed ships, and carried to Malaysia. North Korea is increasingly using elaborate deceptions like this because their own merchant ships are being watched.
Warships around the world are constantly on the lookout for the 200 or so North Korean merchant ships. It's all because the war on terror. With over 50,000 ocean going vessels out there, that could make it to North America, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were forced to develop techniques to deal with the situation. This meant focusing on those ships that presented the greatest threat. Fortunately, only a few thousand ocean going ships regularly visit North America. Most are huge cargo vessels or tankers, constantly moving back and forth between East Asian or Persian Gulf ports and their North American destinations. These are easy to watch. So the navy has established a class of ships that get special attention. These are called vessels of interest (VOI). Some get included in this list because they carry hazardous materials (explosives or very dangerous chemicals). Others are VOIs because they are where they shouldn't be, or are simply suspected of involvement in one seagoing criminal activity or another. If a Chinese or African coastal freighter is spotted approaching North America, it becomes a VOI. If a sailor jumps ship in the United States, that vessel becomes a VOI (because this is now considered a method for smuggling terrorists into the country.) More attention is paid to theft at container ports. Its long been common for criminals to smuggle goods (usually drugs) and people (often prostitutes, or just illegal migrants) in via shipping containers. But terrorists could also come in that way. Appeals to port workers' patriotism usually provides a steady supply of tips on which crooks are, or might be, crossing the line from thieving to terrorism.
The search for VOIs has also uncovered a lot more nefarious activity on the high seas than the navy had previously suspected. While it was known that North Korea had been shipping illegal goods (drugs, counterfeit cash, weapons) around on its merchant ships, the VOI search uncovered much, much more. The North Koreans were discovered to be a lot more active in gunrunning and smuggling illegal raw materials (ore, oil and lumber) out of Africa and Asian hot spots. As a result of the VOI program, they are increasingly getting caught.
So far, there's been no proof that the North Korean smuggling fleet has been servicing terrorist organizations. But it's believed the North Koreans would, if the price was right, and the chances of getting caught seemed minimal. Certainly, moving goods in and out of Somalia is one of the most dangerous activities a merchant ship could be involved in. Most of the North Korean ships are old and decrepit. These ships are rather small and slow, and have to scramble for any kind of cargo. So they have a reputation for going anywhere, to carry just about anything, if the price is right. The North Koreans are also aware of the U.S. scrutiny, and have a sense that they will be left alone as long as they do not cross the line (deal with terrorists.)
Meanwhile, all VOIs have become a seagoing version of the usual suspects. The same ships keep showing up again and again when the navy, coast guard or port authorities go looking for bad behavior.