Exclusive: A newly launched Russian passenger ferry was detained for carrying suspected military cargo destined for North Korea. The new evidence Moscow is supplying Kim Jong-Un with missile technology to threaten the U.S.
On May 14, North Korea sent the first of three successive chilling messages to the U.S. It was the successful launch of an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) capable of hitting the U.S. territory of Guam. The launch surprised analysts because the IRBM had an estimated range of 4,500 KM (2,800 Miles).”This range is considerably longer than the estimated range of the Musudan missile (a previous type of North Korean missile), which showed a range of about 3,000 km in a test last year,” said David Wright in his blog allthingsnuclear.
Despite sanctions, Russian ferry service to North Korea begins on May 9.
So it’s notable that as Pyongyang began the latest battery tests of missiles, a Russian ferry service was launched from the Russian port city of Vladivostok to the North Korean port of Rajin. The ferry service is billed as a cargo and passenger venture and is operated by a Russian-owned company based in North Korea. Analysts consider the ferry service unusual considering the heightened tension surrounding the Pyongyang regime, not to mention the limited potential for trade from a heavily sanctioned country like North Korea.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry says there’s nothing unusual about launching North Korea’s only international ferry service under the cloud of growing international concern about Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told Reuters she “didn’t see a connection” between the new ferry service and political issues. The ferry’s Russian operator, Investstroytrest, said it was purely a commercial venture that was developed with no subsidies or involvement from Moscow.
The Man Gyong Bong is believed to have set sail on her maiden voyage from Rajin to Vladivostok on May 9 to join the World War 2 victory memorial events in the city. It undertook the return 12 hour journey the next day, May 10. The ship can carry up to 1,500 tonnes of cargo in its three dry holds and boasts 50 cabins, slot machines, a shop, a sauna and a karaoke room for “merrymaking”.
Russian ferry detained by customs officials for suspicious cargo destined for North Korean military.
Rajin is just 12 hours drive away from the May 14 IRBM launch site of Kusong. It’s at least conceivable cargo arriving on May 10 or 11 could have been used in the May 14 launch. It is notable, the more voyages the Man Gyong Bong took, the greater the leaps in North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
Barely a month after the ferry began service, on July 4, North Korea launched the second of its unexpected missile launches. This time its first successful Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with a strike range well into the U.S. mainland. The launch pleased Kim Jong-Un so much he was quoted as saying ” [Those] American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” according to Korea’s state-run news agency, KCNA.
The Man Gyong Bong continued to shuttle cargo between Russia and North Korea on at least nine round-trips unfettered until July 14. On that Friday, Russian customs officials detained the ship for 16 hours for carrying cargo that could aid North Korea’s military.
“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 Michael Khmel, the Deputy Director of the ferry operator, Investroytrest.
The ferry was allowed to continue on its journey the next day, July 15, but it’s unclear if the suspicious cargo was allowed to remain on board. A travel agent in Vladivostok says she regularly books passengers on the voyage. “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.
13 days after the ferry was allowed to continue on its journey, North Korea surprised the world again. This time with a new longer range Inter-continental missile (Hwasong-14) launched at 11:11 Pm local time, on July 28. It flew 47 minutes and appeared to be capable of reaching almost all of the United States.
North Korea makes missile advances with Russian-made engines.
This launch caught analysts by surprise – particularly what looked like Soviet-made RD-250 rocket engines which powered the missiles. “It appears that they sourced that engine from a foreign entity and they have successfully incorporated that engine into their missiles,” says Michael Elleman, a former consultant at the Pentagon.
The New York Times published a story citing the source of North Korea’s newly received RD-250 engines as being of Ukrainian origin but this was strenuously denied by Kiev who pointed the finger at the Kremlin. “We believe that this anti-Ukrainian campaign was triggered by Russian secret services to cover their participation in the North Korean nuclear and missile programs”, said Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of the Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. It’s worth noting, Russia denied North Korea launched the ICBMs, contradicting U.S., Japanese and North Korean claims.
Even if they were of Ukrainian origin, The Times says the rocket engines could have been stockpiled in Russia and were obtained via Russia. Considering suspicious military cargo caused a 16-hour delay in the ferry’s departure on July 14, less than two weeks before the launch of North Korea’s second ICBM which used the RD-250 engines, there’s now growing evidence that North Korea’s recent missile success may be Russian-made or obtained and perhaps delivered on an suspiciously timed ferry service.
If you liked this story, you may want to read “Wag The Dog” about Russia’s history of involvement with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.