The Mongolia-flagged vessel that sank earlier this month in waters off South Korea while sailing from the North to China was owned by a company in Hong Kong, Seoul officials said, raising suspicion that the ship could be part of the regime’s attempt to evade UN sanctions banning any illicit trade of weapons, luxury goods or other related material.
On April 4, the Grand Fortune 1, a 4,300-ton cargo ship flying the Mongolia state flag, sank in international waters off the coast of Yeosu in the southwestern part of South Korea.
The vessel was carrying 16 North Korean crew members, 50 metric tons of heavy fuel oil and 6,500 tons of iron ore and copper powder, according to the Korea Coast Guard, which would have earned the Communist state hard-sought foreign currencies amid crushing international sanctions on its economy.
The ship was bound for Jiangdu Port, eastern China, from the North Korean port city of Cheongjin.
The South Korean coast guard rescued five North Korean crew members, though two later died from their injuries. It also uncovered the body of a dead North Korean crew member during its search. South Korea repatriated the three crew members and the bodies via the border village of Panmunjom.
The fact that the vessel flew a Mongolian flag when all its crew members were North Korean nationals sparked suspicions that Pyongyang was using the Mongolian ship to avoid South Korea’s scrutiny. Questions remain over the ship’s owner, reportedly a company based in Hong Kong, Seoul officials told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.
According to officials from South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, the owner is believed to have registered the ship in the Mongolian government’s database to evade taxes and hired North Korean crew members for their cheap labor.
Under international law, it is not illegal for a commercial vessel in a state to be registered to a country different than that of its owner. A practice called “flag of convenience,” the system is often employed to evade regulations in the owner’s country of origin or to lessen operating expenses.
Panama and Liberia, for instance, have some of the largest open shipping registries in the world by deadweight tonnage, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and flags the most foreign-owned vessels.
The system has been criticized by a number of international organizations, however, for its substandard practices, poor safety and training.
Although Mongolia is a land-locked country, it has accepted dozens of foreign vessels to be flagged under its system since 2003. In return, the country can boost its shipping industry. Seoul officials suspect there is a possibility that North Korea registered the ship in Mongolia by using a fake owner or company.
“Because the Grand Fortune 1 was discovered in international waters, not South Korean waters, we could not launch an investigation into the ship under UN Security Council resolutions,” a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said. “Except for the heavy fuel oil or iron ore, which we could see right [on deck], we could not confirm what else the vessel loaded.”
According to a March report by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee, there are at least eight operating ships suspected to be North Korean.
BY JEONG WON-YEOB [email@example.com ]