The North Korean ferry that recently began weekly sailings to Russia’s Vladivostok ran into the first problem with customs checks this month owing to strict UN sanctions on Pyongyang because of its nuclear and missile program.
On Friday, July 14, two hours before the ferry Man Gyong Bong was due to depart Vladivostok for North Korea’s Rajin port, the Customs Office declined to authorize the vessel to set sail.
The ship was detained by customs officials in the Russian port for 16 hours, Mikhail Khmel, the deputy director of InvestStroiTrest, the Vladivostok company that opened the passenger and cargo link, told Asia Times. It was then allowed to leave.
“There is a possibility of violation of the rules of the Eurasian Union and violation of Russian legislation in terms of customs procedures regarding the export of goods that contribute to the development of the capabilities of the North Korean armed forces,” said Khmel in explaining the reasons given for the delay.
“We have completed nine voyages already. All of these have been in line with Russian laws and regulations and the United Nations resolutions, which call for a thorough check of all vessels entering North Korea,” he said.
As a result of the Customs notice, 25 passengers, including children, had to wait until the morning of July 15, a Saturday. Among them were Chinese citizens, whose permission to be on Russian territory was expiring.
The incident has raised concern tourists won’t use the ferry, said Natalia Zinina, deputy director of the Vladivostok tourism firm Amita, which developed the tour schedule for Man Gyong Bong ferry passengers.
“Our company sends tourists on this route every week, typically groups of three to five people. More often than not, these are scientists or those who organize visits for children to North Korea,” she said.
Beside Russians, she said she is arranging documents for a group from Germany and there is great interest in the tours from ethnic Koreans living in other countries, according to Zinina.
Ferry passengers get visa-free entry as part of an agreement between the two countries. The cost of a seven-day tour, which includes transport, accommodation, meals, 19 excursions and time to relax on the beach, is 27,000 rubles ($456). A ferry ticket costs 5,200 rubles ($88), Zinina said.
The ferry, which can carry 190 people and up to 1,000 tons of cargo, is already having trouble attracting interest among Russian and Chinese tourists, despite offers of visa-free travel and the relatively low cost of the package tours.
The vessel leaves Rajin Port in North Korea’s Rason city on Wednesdays and sails back from Vladivostok on Fridays. Since starting on May 18, the ferry has completed nine of the 12-hour crossings but is typically less than a third full, said Khmel of InvestStroiTrest.
“I see this as due to the fact that the route is new. Tour operators, passengers and businesses are not yet aware or informed about the existence of this service,” he said.
“After all, this is the first time that a maritime link has been established between North Korea and Russia. We didn’t have such a link even in Soviet times.”
The Man Gyong Bong is named after a hill near Pyongyang and was built it in 1992 as a gift for the 80th birthday of Kim Il Sung.
Until 2006, it sailed on the route to the Japanese port of Niigata, but after North Korean missile tests, the ferry was prohibited from entering Japanese waters.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova earlier told the Russian media that the opening of a cargo and passenger ferry with North Korea does not fall under the sanctions of the UN Security Council.
Minister for the Development of the Far East, Alexander Galushka, in turn, noted that Russia supports the UN Security Council resolution and will cooperate with North Korea “in as far as that [cooperation] does not run counter to the UN Security Council resolution.”