Week 3: Moving away from at-sea interdictions

Key Learning Moments

  • We learned that there are very few actual at-sea interdictions performed to enforce refined petroleum import sanctions.
  • We learned that reforming the flag state approval process is unlikely to meaningfully improve refined petroleum interdiction capabilities related to North Korea.
  • There formal US Treasury Sanctions list likely does not include all publicly known bad actors and thus is underinclusive of potential targets.

Experiment Results

An Underlying Assumption for our active hypotheses was disproved.

We had assumed without proving that a significant number of at-sea interdictions were occurring or were predicted to occur related to efforts to curb North Korean refined petroleum imports. We were quickly disabused of this notion across several interviews. Despite some serious at-sea interdiction efforts related to missile and nuclear technologies, at-sea interception of refined petroleum smugglers is incredibly rare (and even when it does occur, it rarely results in a boarding). We also learned that what interdiction do occur are far more likely to be driven by active intelligence rather than a patrolling vessel happening upon an illicit scene.

Hypothesis 2, related to shortening the flag state approval process, was also disproved.

Our vision for eliminating a pain point around flag state approval procedures was undercut by the discovery that at-sea interdictions are rare and are often directed in advance based on active intelligence. Because the model we were working with involved a ship commander having to wait for a convoluted flag state approval process to occur, we thought it was an area for improvement. Now that we realize interdiction missions will usually be planned in advance, there is little likelihood of flag state approval holding up the process.

Mission Model Canvas Impacts

We need to work to better identify our final beneficiaries. We will have a difficult time solidifying any plans if the only person we know we want to benefit is the lead US negotiator. This problem is intertwined for us with identifying what aspect of the problem we want to influence given the wide variety of actors involved with the greater North Korean sanctions effort.

Moving away from at-sea interdictions as our focus changes the networks we expect to be working within to effectuate change. Instead of ship commanders and tactical leads, we may find corporate shipping executives and port authority managers to be more relevant. Similar to our difficulties with identifying beneficiaries without having first solidified which “market” we hope to impact, it is hard to identify future partners or opponents of changes we might make.


We learned early on that focusing on at-sea interdictions was unlikely to be fruitful so we tried to engage a wider network of informed experts to help identify new areas of influence to investigate.

  1. Adam Smith, Former Senior Advisor OFAC
  2. Andrew Moore, Former State Dept
  3. David Debartolo, Former State Dept
  4. Katie Visser, Special Counsel to the General Counsel, Dept. of Defense (on background)
  5. Jeremy Weinstein, Former USUN, Former NSC
  6. Van Jackson, Professor at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand
  7. Youngjoo Cho, Aviation and Korean Law Expert, Stanford
  8. Paweł Jabłoński, Department of Strategic Project Coordination, PM Office, Poland
  9. Michał Lewandowski,  OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office)
  10. Vincent Kor, Maersk International

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