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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Government shrugs off flag failings

A pin showing the location of the Cambodian-flagged cargo ship Jie Shun that was caught carrying North Korean arms to Egypt last year.
A pin showing the location of the Cambodian-flagged cargo ship Jie Shun that was caught carrying North Korean arms to Egypt last year. Google maps

Government shrugs off flag failings

The government is taking pains to distance itself from a North Korean arms shipment to Egypt, enabled by a Cambodian flag of convenience – but only after an explosive new report from the Washington Post resurrected the Kingdom’s involvement in the months-old case.

North Korea was found by the United Nations in March to have dodged international sanctions by transporting 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades – the largest known shipment of ammunition in the cloistered nation’s sanctions history – on a vessel captained by a North Korean crew but flying Cambodia’s flag.

The weapons – hidden under a stockpile of iron ore – were uncovered after the ship, named Jie Shun, was intercepted on August 11, 2016, just south of the Suez Canal.

Though the incident was widely reported months ago, Cambodian officials at the time professed ignorance and disbelief, and refused to engage with questions regarding the government’s responsibility for crimes committed by ships flying its colours.

But after the Washington Post’s story, published on Monday, Cambodia time, the government leapt to offer a “clarification” of what it characterised as its proactive efforts to prevent the misuse of its flag on the high seas.

Even so, as of yesterday, the Jie Shun was still flying the Cambodian flag as it travelled off the coast of China, according to ship-tracking site Marine Traffic. Furthermore, as of last Friday, a total of 19 ships were still hoisting the Cambodian flag, which observers have previously said could demonstrate a lack of political will by Cambodia to get its flag off the seas.

The principal revelation of the Washington Post’s report was that the intended buyers of the military weapons were the Egyptians themselves. The report says anonymous US and Western diplomats confirmed that a UN investigation “uncovered a complex arrangement in which Egyptian business executives ordered millions of dollars worth of North Korean rockets”.

A UN report detailing how North Korea and the Jie Shun abused its Cambodian flag of convenience was released in March, but the Washington Post said that “many details . . . were never publicly revealed”.

An aerial view of the Cambodian-registered cargo ship East Sea taken in 2001.
An aerial view of the Cambodian-registered cargo ship East Sea taken in 2001. AFP

Cambodia officially retired its flag of convenience scheme – which allowed ship owners to register under the Cambodian flag to avoid scrutiny, and often to mask crimes from human trafficking to drug smuggling – on September 1, 2016. The closure, coming less than a month after the Jie Shun was discovered, prompted speculation that the two events were linked.

The “clarification” from the Foreign Ministry yesterday, however, said the decision to end the scheme was made in 2015, and that ships flying Cambodian colours had been permitted to do so until the end of August 2016.
The Jie Shun was intercepted three weeks prior to this cut-off date.

“The flying of the Cambodian flag of convenience by any ship including the above-mentioned vessel is illegal,” the ministry’s statement said.

The government further said it had deregistered three ships owned by a North Korean company flying the Cambodian flag of convenience as of April 12, in accordance with a UN resolution on March 2.

They did not say the Jie Shun was one of those deregistered vessels, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry and Transport Director Chan Dara did not respond yesterday to calls requesting clarification as to why the vessel – and others like it – was still sailing under Cambodian colours.

Jacqueline Smith, maritime coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, told The Post last week that removing a state’s flags from circulation was simply a matter of political will.

“Our experience from other countries is that it is not complicated if there is a political will to change,” she said at the time. “Previously it has been reported that by the end of 2016 that there will not be any Cambodian flag vessels, however, this does not seem to be the case.”

Reached again yesterday, she said via email that, since the Foreign Ministry clearly stated that any ship flying the Cambodian flag after August 2016 was considered illegal, “these vessels should be systematically detained by [Port State Control] wherever they arrive”.

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