North Korea made headlines last week when it kicked off a diplomatic dispute with Mexico, announcing it would take the “necessary measures” to secure the release of a vessel detained by Mexican authorities last July.
The DPRK’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations An Myong-hun claimed the Mu Du Bong vessel is strictly a commercial vessel, calling the seizure a “rampant violation” of its sovereignty.
The North Korean diplomat’s remarks brought Mexico’s nine-month seizure into the spotlight, in the process highlighting the Latin American country’s indecision over what to do with the 7,000-ton freighter in Tuxpan port.
In the meantime, Mexican media reports that the 33-member crew remains aboard the vessel, not staying in a hotel as previously claimed by Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
DELAYED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
The North Korean ship first caught the public eye when it ran aground off the Mexican coast in July last year, crashing into and damaging a reef 13 kilometers from Tuxpan port amidst reports of a disorientated captain.
The timing of the accident was unfortunate for its crew, coming in the same two-month period as the UN and U.S. Department of Treasury stepped up sanctions against the vessel and its owners, Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), for its role in moving weapons through the Panama Canal in 2013.
Since then, there have been numerous reports indicating the Mu Du Bong would be able to leave Mexico, including in late August and then again at the end of 2014. The NK News vessel tracker, however, shows the DPRK ship still moored at Tuxpan Port.
‘The Security Council has not concluded its analysis of the case, so in compliance with the obligations under the United Nations Charter, Mexico cannot authorize the release of the ship’
With the environmental damage caused by the accident long paid for, Mexican authorities placed responsibility for holding the ship firmly at the UN’s door, issuing a statement saying they were fulfilling their obligations as member state.
“The Security Council has not concluded its analysis of the case, so in compliance with the obligations under the United Nations Charter, Mexico cannot authorize the release of the ship,” a press release from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads.
The Mexican statement comes after the publication of a report from the UN Panel of Experts (PoE), which conclusively linked the Mu Du Bong to OMM.
“(The Mexican authorities) are probably waiting for a clarification of some sort on the Mu Du Bong,” a diplomatic source familiar with UN practices told NK News.
“This would come not from the Security Council but from the Committee established pursuant to UNSCR 1718 that supervises the Panel and that has power of interpretation. The Panel itself can express views on matters such as whether the Mu Du Bong is an OMM vessel but is not supposed formally to determine these things,” the source added.
NK News originally reported in August last year that the Mu Du Bong would likely be able to leave the Mexican port in the coming weeks.
It appeared at the time that the Mexican authorities were aware of the potential problems that could arise from detaining the vessel.
“We need to solve this problem, we need to help the vessel leave. We don’t want it to stay here because it’s a problem for everybody. For us, it is better if the vessel goes to North Korea,” Maria de los Angeles from the Tajin Consignaciones Shipping Agency, which mediated between the North Korean embassy and the Tuxpan Port Authority, told NK News in August.
Mexican media however reported last week that UN “agency experts” travelled to Tuxpan in September last year.
Mexico’s environmental agency the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), who fined the Mu Du Bong 10 million pesos ($756,000) for the environmental damage it caused said the ship could leave in December last year.
“PROFEPA informs me (they) have no objection to the Port authorizing the departure of the ship … but we need one from the PGR (Attorney General of Mexico),” Antonio Orozco Peredo, Tuxpan Port’s captain, told local media in December.
‘It’s possible that they are buying time, but equally possible that they are simply trying to do the right thing’
The PGR did not respond to requests for comment, however NK News has learned the Mexican authorities are still unsure of what to do with the ship, having to balance the recommendations from the UN’s PoE, against the financial costs of continuing to hold the vessel and North Korean pressure to release it.
“It’s possible that they are buying time, but equally possible that they are simply trying to do the right thing – wait until the UN decides on the ship before releasing it or taking other action,” the anonymous source told NK News.
“I’d hazard a guess that they’re hoping that if the decision is not to release it, the UN will tell them what to do next, so that they don’t have to take responsibility for that decision themselves,” they continued.
The indecision might also not only be confined to the Mexican authorities.
“(In) New York, I suspect that the members of the 1718 Committee (the Security Council, but at a lower level) are arguing fiercely behind closed doors,” the source added.
THE CASE AGAINST THE MU DU BONG
Last week the coordinator for the PoE Hugh Griffiths told the New York Times the evidence supporting OMM’s ownership of the Mu Du Bong is “overwhelming,” an opinion shared by others who have investigated North Korea’s sanction evasion practices.
“I view the documentary evidence as more than sufficient to show OMM’s control of the ship. The resolutions are clear about the requirement of Member States to freeze assets of designated entities,” a former member of the Panel of Experts told NK News.
Inspection records from the Tokyo PSC, the body in charge of inspecting vessels in Asia, show the Mu Du Bong as the listed owner in 2013. The ownership information is also confirmed in numerous maritime databases.
The PoE latest report published in February even has a section entitled “OMM control of the Mu Du Bong.”
The annex of the report contains numerous photographs of paperwork obtained from the vessel. OMM’s name can be clearly seen on the ship’s safety management certificates, shipping contracts and documents given to the PoE by the Mexican authorities.
“The Panel shared its view with the Mexican authorities that the Mu Du Bong was an asset of OMM. The authorities indicated to the Panel that they intended to wait until the release of the report to make a decision,” the report reads.
The report also says that no member state has yet to freeze an OMM affiliated vessel, further indicating the Mu Du Bong’s status is still up in the air.
Should the Mexican government freeze the vessel, they may have the opportunity to recoup some of the costs incurred keeping it for nine months.
“UNSCR 1874 gives the seizing nation the right to auction or scrap the ship,” Joshua Stanton, an attorney and author of the One Free Korea blog told NK News last month.
Japanese authorities, however, did not share Mexico’s indecision in March this year, when they allowed another OMM vessel to enter a port their southwestern coast.
The North Korean flagged Hui Chon stayed in Japanese waters for four days, likely in breach of Japanese law and UN sanctions, before setting sail for the DPRK.
It has yet to reappear on the NK News vessel tracker, after disappearing off terrestrial tracking systems on March 13.
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