Amid calls from the United States and other Western nations to financially isolate North Korea as part an effort to dissuade their Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, from pursuing nuclear weapons and a reliable missile platform to deliver them, Russia has just opened a new weekly transport vessel intended to ferry people back and forth between Russia and North Korea.
The ship will make weekly trips between the two nations, docking in Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin.
The operators of the Russian ferry refer to the venture as “purely commercial” but the decision to allow it to start operations is being seen by many as a political olive branch, as North Korea hopes to warm relations with the Kremlin in the face of a slightly souring relationship with China. According to the company operating the ferry, the primary demographic their service will cater to is Chinese citizens wanting to travel to the Russian Pacific port from within North Korea.
“It’s our business, of our company, without any state subsidies, involvement and help,” Mikhail Khmel, the deputy director of Investstroytrest, the Russia firm operating the ferry, told reporters.
“These are Russian citizens, who are returning from North Korea, and tourists from China,” he added.
While Chinese citizens do frequently travel to and from the reclusive state, it seems unlikely that this new ferry will cater specifically to Chinese citizens with an interest in traveling to Russia by way of North Korea, though it is important to note that China has no ports on the Sea of Japan, making travel through North Korea to Vladivostok the quickest route by sea.
Despite that, North Korea’s state-owned news agency, KCNA, seems to think the new ferry has much more to do with Russia-North Korean relations than Chinese tourism.
“Rajin-Vladivostok international tourist liner Man Gyong Bong will be operated by the common efforts of the DPRK and Russia,” reads a report published by KCNA.
“Man Gyong Bong’s operation as Rajin-Vladivostok international tourist liner will make a positive contribution to developing marine transport and economic cooperation and tourism between the two countries,” it added.
This new service is being launched amid calls for all nations to fully enforce sanctions laid out by the United Nations intended to slow North Korea’s economy to a point that forces its leader to reassess his pursuit of nuclear arms.
“We call on all nations to fully implement U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and sever or downgrade diplomatic and commercial relations with North Korea,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Katina Adams, said when questioned about the new commercial transport route.
It is not currently clear if the new ferry is in any violation of the sanctions outlined by existing resolutions, but it is certainly not in keeping with their intent, which is to further isolate the already reclusive regime. Adams also noted that Russia’s “obligation” under U.N. Security Council resolutions is “to inspect all cargo, including personal luggage, of any individual traveling to or from” North Korea.
Journalists were barred from the area as the North Korean-flagged vessel Mangyongbong disembarked its first passengers, with the Russian government citing unnamed “security concerns” for their decision to limit access. Correspondents from Reuters were able to speak to some of the passengers after they’d disembarked, however, who claimed to be representatives of Chinese tourism agencies. One of the representatives showed pictures on her cell phone of plaques on the vessel depicting the name and likeness of North Korea’s long-dead founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather to current leader, Kim Jong Un.
The vessel boasts a restaurant, two fully-stocked bars, a karaoke club and sauna facilities and carried a reported 40 passengers per trip.
Despite claiming to share in the U.S. concern over nuclear weapons in the hands of the North Korean government, Russia has been publicly critical of American military posturing in the area, and regularly places the blame for tensions with Kim’s regime on the U.S., despite the regular flurry of nuclear threats levied by the North Korean government. China has also remained critical of the U.S. military presence in the region, though both nations maintain thinly veiled concerns about the American presence as it pertains to their own borders, rather than North Korea’s.
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