Japanese authorities may have ignored UN sanctions last week when they released a vessel associated with Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), the North Korean shipping company behind the 2013 shipment of munitions through the Panama Canal.
The Hui Chon, which changed its name and associated management companies after being designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury last June, spent three days last week, starting March 9, in the Japanese port of Sakaiminato.
The vessel’s presence in a Japanese port may have contravened Japanese law, while its subsequent departure may have also been in breach of UN resolutions 1718 and 2094.
A NORTH KOREAN SHIP AT NIGHT
The North Korean vessel, which according to Equasis Maritime Database was called the Hwang Gum San 2 until last October, appeared on satellite AIS tracking systems near the coast of Japan on March 7.
The vessel had left no footprint on tracking systems since March 4, when it was picked up by a terrestrial tracking station on China’s northeastern coast.
The absence of tracking data indicates that either the satellite did not pick up the ship’s signal due to heavy traffic, or the Hui Chon was breaking maritime law by sailing with its AIS transponder switched off.
According to the NK News vessel tracker, by 6 p.m. on March 8 the vessel was sailing within 20km of the Japanese coastline, near the city of Matsue. Three hours later the ship slowed down, then appeared to turn sharply and head into the port of Sakaiminato in Japan’s Tottori prefecture.
The sanctioned vessel then spent the next three days in the port before setting sail just before midnight on March 12.
It disappeared off tracking systems at around 8 a.m. on March 13, two days after the Japanese government ruled that sanctions and port restrictions against the DPRK would be upheld for a further two years.
It is highly unusual to see North Korean flagged vessels in Japanese ports, as they are banned over concerns that DPRK ships create openings for North Korean operatives to gain entry into Japan.
The restrictions were loosened in 2014 when North Korea promised to progress in the long-running dispute over DPRK abductions of Japanese citizens in the ’80s and ’90s.
The new rules said that North Korean ships could enter Japanese ports on humanitarian grounds, though according to a 2014 article in the Nikkei Asian review, the restrictions were not lifted universally.
Even under the revised laws, Japanese authorities still placed restrictions on vessel size, capacity, crew numbers and ownership.
While small in comparison to some of the huge container ships that sail international trade routes, the Hui Chon is still more than 100 meters long and weighs in at nearly 3,500 tons. Its management was recently transferred from OMM to Huichon Shipping, a company designated by the UN Panel of Experts (PoE), as an OMM shell company in a draft version of their 2015 report on North Korea.
A representative for Japan’s Port State Control (PSC), the organization which enforces marine safety and environmental standards, told NK News that North Korean vessels could enter Japanese ports “under certain conditions” but would have to have prior permission from the government to do so.
A member of Japan’s 8th Division Maritime Security Department told NK News that the Hui Chon’s presence in Sakaiminato “was an accidental evacuation because of bad weather, and I don’t know about whether we knew about the sanctions or not.”
The Japanese Meteorological Office contradicted this statement, however, telling NK News that were no storms on March 8 or 9 in the region. Reported winds were around 12 miles per hour, with some light rain.
Had the ship suffered any damage, or been in danger it also would have fallen under the jurisdiction of the PSC and relevant government authorities.
“All of the ships, if they encounter any malfunction(ing) in the international ocean, must be scrutinized by the right officials,” a representative of the Maritime Affairs and Safety Policy Bureau, at the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries told NK News.
“If the ship is damaged by a storm, the government or companies hired by government board on the ship and inspect it. We inspect to make sure that all the safety measures are installed by the standard international guidelines,” he continued.
There is no record, however, of the Hui Chon being inspected in the PSC database, with the last taking place in 2013 in a Chinese port. Nor is there any record in the International Maritime Organization (IMO) database of an accident or rescue.
While some aspects of the Hui Chon’s behavior are consistent with suffering a breakdown of some kind, there appears to have been no follow-up inspection of its seaworthiness, nor were any attempts made to detain it due to safety or environmental issues.
Regardless of the condition of the ship, the Japanese government may still have had legal grounds to seize the vessel.
“If the Japanese government had any reason to believe that DPRK ship could be threat to their oceans, whether it was damaged by storm or not, they have international right to detain the ship until they were certain,” the source at Maritime Affairs and Safety Policy Bureau said.
The Hui Chon’s sanctioned status may also have allowed its seizure under UN regulations.
“(There is a possibility) that we have a case that requires Japan to take action under para 16 of UNSCR 2094,” a source with knowledge of UN sanctions told NK News on the condition of anonymity.
The draft version of the UN’s PoE 2015 report also appears to tackle the subject of OMM’s sanctioned fleet.
“Member states are obliged by resolutions 1718 (2006) and 2094 (2013) to immediately freeze assets and economic resources owned by OMM or any individual or entity working for the Company” paragraph 133 of the report reads.
“The Panel considers that ‘assets’ and ‘resources’ are understood to include assets of every kind, including vessels, and therefore that vessels owned and/or controlled by them should be frozen by relevant Member states.”
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told NK News that they were aware of the Hui Chon’s presence in Saikaminato Port and were “considering a response.” They declined to comment on the news that the sanctioned vessel had left the port on March 12.
“UNSCR 1718 and 2094 give the nations the obligation to seize all economic resources of an entity breaking sanctions. According to the U.N. Panel of Experts, that includes ships controlled, directly or indirectly, by Ocean Maritime Management,” Joshua Stanton, an attorney and author of the One Free Korea blog told NK News.
“The latest POE report contains a chart, indicating that the Hui Chon is an OMM ship. I can only assume the Japanese aren’t enforcing the sanctions for fear of upsetting negotiations over the release of their abductees. If true, that would mean that North Korea continues to derive financial and political benefits from its abductions.”
However, some experts also believe that seizing the ship would not be so simple. While the ship is likely still controlled by OMM, any seizing authority would have to be ready to prove the various changes made to the Hui Chon’s management companies were only made on paper.
Japanese authorities may have also wished to avoid the headaches associated with seizing a vessel affiliated with OMM. Last year another member of the sanctioned company’s fleet ran aground off the coast of Mexico, damaging a reef in the process.
An NK News investigation in August 2013 revealed that the 7,000 ton Mu Du Bong did not have the necessary environmental insurance but would be released in that same month, however the vessel is still there more than six months later.
“It’s not that straightforward simply to say that it used to be an OMM vessel and so should have been seized. Putting into port because of bad weather isn’t relevant at all, but proving it was at the time a DPRK vessel and an asset of a designated entity would be highly relevant for the coastguard,” a sanctions expert and former member of the PoE who wished to remain anonymous said.
The release of Hui Chon by a UN Member State however may serve to embolden OMM, who so far appear to have paid little attention to the sanctions imposed on them by the UN and the U.S. Department of Treasury.
According to the NK News vessel tracker, even the Chong Chon Gang, the ship held in Panama for smuggling munitions and radar systems from Cuba could also be back on the beat.
The vessel has not been sighted on AIS tracking systems since November last year. Prior to and during its voyage to Cuba in 2013, the ship also disappeared for long periods of time.
Additional reporting by Cheon Chang Wuk, Ha Young Choi, and JH AHN
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