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The last known location of a Cambodian-flagged ship allegedly used by North Korea for transporting arms to Cairo via Egypt’s Adabiya port. Google Maps
The last known location of a Cambodian-flagged ship allegedly used by North Korea for transporting arms to Cairo via Egypt’s Adabiya port. Google Maps

Nation’s maritime scheme aided North Korea

New details of Cambodia’s complicity in North Korea’s illicit shipment of 30,000 rocket grenades have come to light in a recent UN Security Council report, made public this week.

A panel of experts investigated North Korea’s “intensified” and “unprecedented” nuclear missile tests and found the communist nation was “flouting sanctions through trade in prohibited goods, with evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication”.

Hoisting Cambodia’s flag was one such technique.

The Kingdom’s lucrative “flags of convenience” scheme covered a raft of sea crimes, from human trafficking to drug smuggling, and was scuppered shortly after Egyptian authorities uncovered a huge North Korean arms haul aboard a Cambodian-flagged vessel.

The report details how the vessel, the Jie Shun, was intercepted just south of the Suez Canal on August 11, having departed from North Korea’s Haeju port on July 23.

Nestled under 2,300 tonnes of limonite, or iron ore – the transport of which is also prohibited – were almost 80 wooden crates. Those contained 30,000 PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades and related subcomponents.

The bill of lading falsely labelled the portable warheads “assembly parts of the underwater pump” when they were loaded onto the ship at a port in China last March.

The panel of experts determined this “was the largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions” against North Korea, which highlighted “an emerging nexus between entities trading in arms and minerals”.

An International Ship Registry of Cambodia document published in the report reveals the ship was registered under Cambodia’s flag in Taiwan on March 23, with an expiration date of August 28, though the report also shows the vessel had been captained by North Koreans under the Kingdom’s flag since 2012. It had also been operated and managed by companies from other countries, mostly China.

“This case demonstrates not only how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea abuses flag of convenience cover, but also how it uses vessels managed by third-country nationals to transfer different types of prohibited goods,” the panel said.

The panel recommended the UN Security Council “prohibit all flag registries from registering vessels commanded by officers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or operated by crews from that country”.

Chan Dara, a director-general at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday, but last September said the decision to cancel Cambodia’s flag scheme was to avoid the scrutiny that comes with ships that violate the law, and because Cambodia lacked the ability to monitor vessels flying its colours.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said Cambodia respected the UN sanctions. Noting the recent cancellation of the flags of convenience registry, he added, “We don’t accept this [illegal] activity at all. This is against the UN.”

International Transport Workers’ Federation maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith said she had not yet read the report, but noted her organisation had “cautiously praised” Cambodia’s decision to nix the scheme.

“It is ironic that the register was established as a joint venture between the Cambodian government and the South Korean company Cosmos Group with 40+ North Korean vessels registered,” she said via email yesterday.

“The register has been and clearly still is being used/abused by North Korea for vessels transporting weapons and shows that the Cambodian government has not been able to retake control of its register.”

According to a number of maritime tracking registries, a handful of ships continued to fly the Cambodian flag even after the ban went into effect.

Smith urged the government to “take immediate concrete actions” to prevent future misuse of the flag to evade international sanctions. The Jie Shun is hardly the first Cambodian-flagged ship with ties to North Korea.

In an interview last September, Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said Chinese and North Korean ships could hide behind Cambodia’s banner to conduct illicit business.

“The North Koreans have long used foreign flagging to conceal their activity, particularly things like arms shipments,” Sneider said.

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