Two armored Mercedes limousines were “likely diverted to North Korea” after being shipped last September from the South Korean port of Busan on a vessel well known for links to DPRK sanctions evasion networks, a new investigative report from C4ADS said on Tuesday.

The Togo-flagged vessel, named ‘DN5505’, was scheduled to arrive in the Russian port of Nakhodka on October 5, but neither it nor five other ports in Russia’s Far East actually ever recorded a visit from the DN5505 in October, C4ADS said, raising questions about where it actually went after leaving South Korean waters.

But while the vessel – currently seized by South Korea – was missing from maritime tracking systems on October 1 for a period of 18 days, the armored Mercedes may have been transported from Russia to North Korea on specially chartered Air Koryo cargo flights, the report said, citing an analysis of customs, vessel and shipment data.

Some of the three Air Koryo IL-76 transport planes seen unusually flying in and out of Vladivostok International Airport on October 7 could have been used for their delivery, the report suggested.

Noting that “Air Koryo’s IL-76 cargo jets are known to transport the armored vehicles used by Kim Jong Un,” C4ADS said the “overlapping visits of the cargo jets and the DN5505 to the Russian Far East” meant it “is possible that the cargo jets could have loaded the Mercedes.”

C4ADS said they had no “direct evidence” of the shipment of the Mercedes to North Korea, however, and neither Vladivostok International Airport nor Russia’s Embassy in the DPRK responded to an NK Pro request for comment on the purpose of the Air Koryo flights to Vladivostok that day.

But a video of Kim Jong Un riding a never-before-seen Mercedes-Maybach S 600 was detected by NK Pro in February 2019, a car C4ADS said in its report may have been among the two possibly transported on the DN5505 and Air Koryo jets.

COAL CONNECTION

Following the DN5505’s transfer of the Mercedes and the 18 day-period during which it did not broadcast its location, as required by international maritime law, the vessel returned to South Korean waters on October 19 with a cargo of 2,588 metric tons of ostensibly Russian “anthracite coal in bulk”.

Notably, the coal was delivered through Pohang Port on November 1 by an Ilsan-based company called Enermax Korea – currently under investigation by the United Nations for an attempted ship-to-ship transfer of North Korean coal in April 2018.

For that and other reasons, it appears likely the coal may have actually come from North Korea, not Russia.

Citing intelligence of the UN’s investigation, a South Korean lawmaker said on April 19 that the DN5505 had also been seized in Pohang for its role in importing North Korean coal into South Korea in breach of sanctions.

“The government grudgingly recognized that the vessel was shipping North Korean coal and kicked off the investigation,” South Korean lawmaker Yoo Ki-june said at the time, referencing suspicions about the DN5505’s transport of 2,588 metric tons of anthracite coal to Enermax via Pohang in November 2018.

A senior official at Enermax Korea — who wished not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue — confirmed to NK Pro on Tuesday that his company received coal last November from the DN5505, but said he was not aware of the vessel being used to ship the armored Mercedes limousines just a few weeks earlier.

The Enermax official — who says he has seen the DN5505 in person  — also claimed that it would be “realistically infeasible” to deliver cars aboard the vessel, citing its structure and design.

“There is a ship hatch on a coal vessel,” the Enermax official said. “We open a hatch-cover and put coal into [the container]. But how can they load up the cars?”

Furthermore, the official said the “report does not make sense” because it would be imprudent to transparently reveal the nature of the Mercedes cargo if the intention was to eventually “smuggle to North Korea”.

A shipping expert told NK Pro, however, that on review of photos of the vessel it would be “no problem” for the DN5505 to transport vehicles within shipping containers.

But if true, the elaborate shipping of the cars across five ports and half the world would have meant an “absurd” expense was incurred, the source continued, “more than the cost of the cars itself.”

For their parts, neither Busan Port, the Korea Customs Service, nor South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could provide comment on the Mercedes’ alleged movement through Busan en route to the North.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson at Slavenburg & Huyser – the shipping firm in Rotterdam where the two Mercedes were originally dispatched to Asia from – said “we are reputable company existing 70years with all certificates, so would never burn our fingers to involve our company in this kind of business.”

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FISHY NETWORK

The DN5505’s connections to illicit activity also don’t end there, as revealed by a previous NK Pro report on the ship’s ties to older North Korean sanctions evasion networks.

The Togo-flagged ship’s previous operators have strong links to North Korean weapon smuggler Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), and have administered vessels which have long been on UN and U.S. blacklists.

The network, first reported on by NK News in 2014, has long made use of South Korean ports and waterways, using foreign-registered vessels and companies to circumvent the South’s May 10 measures which prohibit DPRK-flagged ships from entering South Korean waters.

Further investigation from C4ADS also noted how the DN5505 had also briefly passed through the hands of a Russian company prior to being transferred to the Marshall Islands-based Do Young Shipping.

“Vessel ownership records show Do Young Shipping acquired the Katrin on March 27, 2018, from a Vladivostok-based individual Danil Olegovich Kazachuk,” C4ADS wrote.

Among other business ventures, Kazachuk is also involved with an auto shop which claims “it can service a range of car brands including Mercedes.”

“Kazachuk’s involvement with Avto-Starka may have provided a critical technical capacity for the procurement of the Mercedes-Maybach S600 Guard vehicles,” the C4ADS report reads.

Although C4ADS concludes it cannot conclusively prove that the Mercedes cars exported from South Korea were transferred to the DPRK,  “the data show conclusively that North Korea’s commercial facilitators for multiple strategic sanctions evasion operations including coal exports and ship-to-ship transfers actively procured high-end luxury vehicles.”

One South Korean analyst said if true, the case demonstrated an absence of sufficient monitoring by Seoul.

“The fact that the cargo vessel, which was long suspected of being involved with North Korea’s illicit activities, was able to transit through a South Korean port shows that the South Korean government should cast a broader net to surveil and control vessels and entities that are indirectly linked to North Korea’s commercial activities,” said Dr. Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute.

“Restricting sanctions implementation to known entities and vessels can create loopholes, which will surely be exploited by the North Korean regime”.

Meanwhile, Artyom Lukin, an academic based in Vladivostok, said that “if two Mercedes cars transited through the Vladivostok airport bound for Pyongyang, it could not be done without the knowledge of relevant authorities.”

“To be honest, if I were a top official in Moscow, I would probably authorize such an operation in order to keep friendly relations with Pyongyang,” Lukin continued.

“Russia complies with the UNSC sanctions on N.Korea and the economic interaction between the two countries is close to zero now,” he said. “But, in my view, in some cases exceptions could be worthwhile: after all, Mercedes cars in no way contribute to NK’s nuclear and missile program.”

But Lukin said it was important to remain skeptical.

“It would be so much easier (and cheaper) to ship the cars via North Korea’s land border with China (for example, hidden inside rail cars),” he said. “Why choose the Vladivostok route, then?”

Main picture: KCTV screengrab

Chad O’Carroll, Dagyum Ji and Leo Byrne contributed to this report

Edited by James Fretwell