North Korean freighters made at least five visits to Cuba in the past four years, although other Pyongyang ships may well have sailed to the island under different flags or ownership documents, shipping monitors said Wednesday.
At least one North Korean-owned vessel, the Woory Star 2, is currently registered in Panama, the monitors added. Another was sailing under a Belize flag when it foiled a U.S. Navy attempt to board and search it in 2011.
The Cuba ports of call point to a rising trade between the communist allies, highlighted last week when Panamanian authorities searching the freighter Chong Chon Gang found tons of Cuban weapons hidden under 220,000 sacks of sugar.
“The trade numbers are fuzzy but clearly there’s been more contact between the two countries in recent years,” said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch, which closely monitors the country’s politics.
Cuba has said it was sending the “obsolete” weaponry, including MiG jets and anti-aircraft missiles, to Pyongyang to be refurbished and returned. It has said nothing about the U.N. arms embargo in effect against North Korea since 2006.
But the Chong Chon Gang was only one of at least five North Korean ships that docked in Cuba since 2009, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, which monitors international shipping reports.
The freighter was in Cuba some time between June 1, when it crossed the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and July 10, when it approached Panama to re-cross the canal on its way home. Its location transponder was off throughout its stay in the Caribbean, so its ports of call in Cuba are unknown.
The Po Thong Gang docked at Cuba’s sugar-exporting port of Puerto Padre in April 2012, said Matthew Godsey, of the Wisconsin Project, and had also docked in Havana and Santiago de Cuba during one visit in 2011.
The Oun Chong Nyon Ho docked in Havana and Puerto Padre in May 2012 and the Mu Du Bong visited Havana in May 2009, Godsey added. Neither of those two ships nor the Po Thong Gang were searched as they left the Caribbean.
Two other North Korea freighters, the Ryong Gun Bong and Ap Rok Gang also made recent crossings of the Panama Canal but were not known to have docked in Cuba, according to the Wisconsin Project. The Chong Chon Gang also transited the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 2008 and docked at the Brazilian port of Santos in 2009 before heading to Ukraine and Turkey.
All five ships “operate in a classic shell company network” and are currently or have been run by Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), a state shipping company based in Pyongyang, according to the Wisconsin Project’s Web page.
But Godsey stressed to El Nuevo Herald that those five visits to Cuba do not include visits by ships flagged or owned outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — the official name of North Korea. They also don’t include ships sailing with their automatic location beacons not working, like the Chong Chon Gang during its latest trip to Cuba.
So-called “flags of convenience” are used to register ships in countries where owners can hide their identities, maintain dangerous working conditions and avoid criminal charges or lawsuits for incidents such as environmental mishaps. Owners also create front companies to disguise their responsibility for vessels.
When a U.S. Navy ship tried to search the Light, a freighter registered in the Central American nation of Belize, in May 2011, the captain refused to be boarded and reported the ship was owned by North Korea, according to a report by U.N. experts monitoring the arms embargo on Pyongyang.
The ship was owned and flagged in North Korea, and called the Bu Yon 1, until 2006, when its ownership was transferred to the Even Ocean Shipping Agency in Hong Kong, which registered it in Belize, according to the report.
Soon after the confrontation with the U.S. Navy, Belize deregistered the ship, which was then renamed Victory 3 and registered in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, the experts added.
Godsey added that another North Korean ship, the Woory Star 2, currently flies a Panamanian flag and is operated by the Korean 56 Trading firm, but appears to sail mostly in Asia.
Korea 56 Trading is listed by Japan as “an entity of concern for proliferation” — in essence a list of ships suspected of being part of North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.