Week 5.5 – A Shift in Perspective: Keeping the Big Picture in Mind, While Identifying an Actionable Pinpoint

TL;DR:

Inspired by a conversation with Capt. Miller, we decided two things: a) commit to “zooming in” into the enforcement piece and understand how to make it easier for those who perform it daily (more details in our “Week 6” Blog Post)!; b) not to disregard our “zooming out”: keep the wealth of insights we gather, and crystalize it into a policy report, which will be produced alongside our final product.

Background

Last week was probably one of the most important ones for Embargo.NK so far. Our learning curve was the steepest yet, as we went through a process of trying, failing, hitting a wall, retrying. As a recap, in week 4 we came up with three MVPs:

  • An internal sanctions wiki, which would allow different government agencies to have at their disposal various information regarding sanctioned entities, to speed up the démarche process;
  • A watchlist, which would be relied upon by private entities, as part of a due diligence process to ensure they are not trading with “bad actors”;
  • A “prioritization” tool that would help identify where to best deploy enforcement resources, in light of the strategic objectives the sanctions purports to accomplish.

After our rounds of interviews for week 5 and, particularly, after enlightening chats with Ambassadors Hill and Stephens, we reconsidered our perspective. We decided to zoom out, once again, and look at the bigger picture. We told ourselves the best way to address the issue was to empower the negotiators, and to affect the enforcement decision-making process by encouraging information sharing among the different parties involved.

This idea was, at best, idealistic. True, we got several signals from our interviews that “the process is broken” and that the negotiator needs a menu of option, a range of analytical and anecdotal evidence that they can leverage during the negotiations level. We learned that, sometimes, sanctions are more effective when un-or under-enforced, and that you want to make sure that you are equally able to lift them, as you’re able to apply them. However, if we want to have an impact in this process, and an immediately helpful one, zooming out is not the right option. We need to zoom in, and dig further, and assess our pinpoint.

We learned this the hard way – when we presented what we thought were our breakthrough learnings and, yet, could not come up with an actionable MVP. We thought we had figured out the whole picture, but were also looking at it through the wrong angle. Hitting this wall was crucial in our growth as a team, and in the development of our project.

Brainstorming & an Important Interview

We then had a major brainstorming session. We boiled down and mapped out this enormous quantity of information that we had been gathering in the previous weeks, concerning the actors involved, the process, and the strategic goals at play.

What we had investigated, up to this point, was the relationship between the “results” and the decision-making process. We did not have a clear MVP in mind, but we were thinking to help influence that process by providing a system, a process, or just more information on how the sanctions should align with our strategic goals.

Through our brainstorming session, however, we reached a different conclusion: regardless of our other findings, improving enforcement is valuable, as it is the central piece that connects decision and results.

The brainstorming session came right after an important conversation with Captain Jeffrey Miller, COMPACFLT Maritime Homeland Defense Office in Charge, Coast Guard Area Pacific. Capt. Miller shared with us what vessel monitoring operation looks like in the East China Sea. Miller has a target list of potential vessels that are trafficking with North Korea: the list is based on intelligence he receives from DC, as well as on an algorithm that detects routine people that have been caught performing similar operations. Although in most cases the interdiction operation cannot be performed, as it is not authorized, Miller’s team follows suspected vessels across the horizon, takes pictures and/or annotates the vessel’s number.

Based on Captain Miller’s description, and the cumulative knowledge we gathered from previous interviews, we plunged into the enforcement piece and developed the following diagram:

Captain Miller reiterated a common theme from DoD interviews, that illegal ship-to-ship transfers of refined petroleum are a key focus. Basically, vessels act like a gas station: another vessel can stop and get fuel from them. A key regional problem related to ship-to-ship transfers is that a lot of them happen in the East China Sea unrelated to North Korean sanctions evasion. But as, the latest report from the UN Panel of Experts highlights, North Korea’s use of these illegal transfers have increased exponentially in 2018. The techniques used for sanction circumvention range from less sophisticated, like painting their vessels and changing their names, to more professional ones, like using flags of convenience and spoofing AIS (Automatic Identification System).

Our interviewee reported that, in this process, what he and his team would benefit from is a model that tracks the “normal traffic” of ship-to-ship transfer in the East China Sea. Having a pattern that identifies the regular behavior during these transfers; ie. licit and not-North Korean related ones, will make it a lot easier to spot the outliers.

Inspired by this request, we decided two things:

a) commit to “zooming in” into the enforcement piece and understand how to make it easier for those who perform it daily (more details in our “Week 6” Blog Post)! ; b) not to disregard our “zooming out”: keep the wealth of insights we gather, and crystalize it into a policy report, which will be produced alongside our final product.

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