The bizarre tale of the North Korean-flagged oil tanker that has been trying to escape the clutches of Libya’s fragile central government has prompted days of conflicting news coverage, precipitated the fall of the country’s prime minister, and underscored the continued threat posed by its patchwork of heavily armed militias. But the tangled saga also raises a more basic question: Why on earth would a North Korean-flagged ship risk being bombed "into scrap," as one official threatened, in order to load up on Libyan crude?
It’s a question that has puzzled North Korea watchers, and prompted some to speculate about deteriorating commercial relations with China or even Pyongyang’s desire to shore up its energy resources ahead of a possible rocket test. Others viewed the episode as a predictable outgrowth of North Korea’s growing energy needs — and lack of scruples when it comes to bargain hunting.
"It signifies how much risk North Korea is willing to take," said John Park, a North Korea specialist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who emphasized that nothing can be said for certain in the absence of more information about the tanker. "The risk is much higher than just paying a Chinese broker and then shipping oil a shorter distance."
China is North Korea’s primary trading partner and the supplier of as much as 90 percent of its energy. But several recent provocations have strained the relationship, from Pyongyang conducting its third nuclear test in Feb. 2013 to its missiles fired in early March that came dangerously close to a China Southern passenger jet.
Little is known about the vessel at the heart of the current standoff, the Morning Glory, beyond that it was previously flagged in Liberia. Libya’s National Oil Company has said that it belongs to Saudi Arabia, but few experts think the ship is flying the North Korean flag of convenience (if anything, flying the Hermit Kingdom’s flag all but insures surveillance and inspection.) Saudi Arabia has issued a statement denying government ownership of the vessel, and some experts believe that it could belong to Pyongyang.
"It just implies that there is a strong DPRK interest in this," said Hazel Smith, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain. Smith also emphasized that she was speculating with very little information. "My guess is that the ownership [of the ship] has been transferred to the DPRK recently, so the record may not have caught up with it yet."
It is also possible that a North Korean trading company is leasing a Saudi Arabian ship. "Anything much bigger than 37,000 tons would be too expensive for DPRK," said Smith. "They don’t have big tankers that can carry large amounts of oil, but they can lease them, of course."
Other experts have expressed doubt about direct North Korean involvement, suggesting that the Morning Glory‘s crew most likely planned to sell the stolen oil on the black market. The idea that Pyongyang would attempt to purchase crude owned by Waha Oil, a joint venture between Libya’s National Oil Company and Hess, Marathon, and ConocoPhillips struck some as far-fetched because of its potential to antagonize Washington.
The United States has made it clear that it views rebel oil sales as illegitimate. "This action is counter to law and amounts to theft from the Libyan people. The oil belongs to the Libyan National Oil Company and its joint venture partners," said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, who added that those partners include U.S. companies.
Assuming North Korea was willing to openly flout Washington, however, why go shopping in Libya? The answer may have to do with the December execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle and North Korea’s most prominent business liaison with China. "Jang Song-thaek was a critical connection," said Park. "He was someone you could do a deal with on oil and coal. He was in the middle of all these transactions, and the fact that he is gone from the scene could explain" why Pyongyang is trying to diversify its energy sources. Trade between the two countries reached an estimated $6.45 billion in 2013 — the highest on record, including Pyongyang’s purchases of $598.1 million in crude oil.
But with Jang gone, Pyongyang may be having difficulties purchasing that quantity of oil from China. "This is an act of desperation to go all the way to Libya. Is it a matter of wanting to diversify, or is it something bigger in the Chinese relationship," Park said, adding that North Korea could also be bracing for the international reaction to yet another rocket launch. "If they are able to amass even modest reserves in North Korea, they could be inoculating themselves if they go ahead with another nuclear test."
The bid to score cheaper oil — before its capture, the Morning Glory likely engaged in an oil-for-weapons deal — may also be motivated by the expansion of North Korean energy needs. Since China reportedly charges Pyongyang above-market rates, it makes sense that North Korea’s competitive trading companies would go elsewhere in search of energy inputs.
"They are resource short," explained Smith. "They need oil for their industry and agriculture, and their major source is China, which is not willing to be as accommodating economically as it has been in the past, so they need to think imaginatively about where they are going to get oil."
Of course, it could also simply be that the blockaded Libyan oil was the cheapest available. "The North Koreans are always looking for a bargain," said Christopher Hill, who as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs headed the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. "It could be simply that this rebel group was anxious for a sale and that they offered a price that was too good for the North Koreans to pass up."