Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.
Lauren Sung is an analyst at Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) specializing in Northeast Asia, counterproliferation, and North Korea. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of C4ADS.
C4ADS is known for effectively using open-source data to inform its research. How were you able to find and use open-source data as a tool to learn about North Korea, the world's most isolated country?
It is certainly true that approaching the North Korea problem set from an open-source perspective is different to harnessing publicly available information (PAI) in many other jurisdictions, as the country shares almost no domestic records. However, data exists where North Korea interacts with foreign countries or networks that do keep records—such as North Korean companies registering and operating overseas or customs records, or where data is collected agnostically of state boundaries, such as satellite imagery or automatic identification system (AIS) data.
These datasets shed light on how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducts business and generates revenue overseas, and the supply chain of goods, including sanctioned commodities, in and out of the country. For instance, in our report that tracked the shipment of luxury goods to Pyongyang, we relied on AIS (ship transmission) data, port and trade records, and flight records. In our latest report looking at North Korea’s illicit fuel procurement, we relied heavily on satellite imagery as well as the two above data sources, to observe the location and activities of vessels, especially in the absence of AIS data. In all of our work, we also use public records, such as corporate registration data, from across the world to gather more information on the entities in North Korea’s overseas networks.
In addition to your North Korea research, you study organized crime in Asia. How is organized crime in Asia linked to broader geopolitical issues?
Transnational organized criminal networks often provide an avenue through which rogue actors can achieve extralegal goals, and their activities and the illicit gains generated can play a role in destabilizing institutions and international norms. For instance, we observed in our recent report that North Korea’s illicit supply chain for oil, a commodity key to Pyongyang’s regime survival and its proliferation agenda, is reliant on the region's long-existing fuel black market. For decades, smugglers in this region have exploited price differences of fuel across borders to buy cheaply and sell for profit. In the process, they have developed the tradecraft to evade authorities and the financial and logistical capacity to smuggle fuel at volume. Since the U.N. Security Council imposed a cap on the DPRK’s fuel imports in 2017, these organized criminal networks have been diverting fuel from licit supply chains to meet North Korea's demand for fuel that it can no longer legally acquire.
It's more than aiding North Korea's sanctions evasions though. A closer look at these networks revealed that they have also engaged in bribery of public officials, and maintain contentious political affiliations, such as having ties to gangs involved in violence against protestors in Hong Kong and patriotic organizations linked to the Chinese Communist Party.
Do you find that there are challenges to working on national security issues related to Asia as an individual of Asian heritage? How can we overcome those?
As concerns about Asia-related national security issues heighten, particularly vis-à-vis China, so has skepticism and discrimination toward Asian heritage individuals in this field. Many Asian national security professionals have experienced prejudice as a result of their heritage, in which others assume that one’s ethnic background biases one’s judgement or even affects one’s loyalties, especially in cases where the subject matter directly relates to one or one’s family’s “place of origin.” While it is true that none of us are free from bias, we should note that other professional claims of impartial judgement that are not related to race or ethnicity, (e.g., claiming bipartisanism) are not met with the same kind of prejudice.
In my opinion, overcoming these issues is achieved by distinguishing the subject matter, such as China, or any other Asian state, from the people of that heritage (particularly if that heritage is suspected, not confirmed), as well as to understand that “Asian” or “Asian heritage” are umbrella terms for an incredibly diverse range of people and backgrounds. This will not be easy. But the first step is increasing Asian representation in the national security sector, including in positions of leadership, thereby driving the conversation to normalize our participation in this community.
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