More on the North Korean Vessel Seized in Panama

The Chong Chon Gang is not the only North Korean vessel traveling to Latin America

On July 12, authorities in Panama boarded and searched the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean-flagged cargo vessel returning from Cuba and preparing to transit the Panama Canal. The search is ongoing but so far has revealed military cargo, apparently including components for missile systems, hidden under a load of sugar.

The Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control has analyzed the voyage history of the Chong Chon Gang and related vessels over the past decade. According to the data, last month’s visit to Cuba is only the most recent of at least three voyages to Central and South America that the vessel has made. In August 2008, the Chong Chon Gang made another transit of the Panama Canal (from Atlantic to Pacific), and in October 2009 it stopped at a port in Santos, Brazil, before heading through the Mediterranean for stops in Ukraine and Turkey.

The data also show that the Chong Chon Gang is not the only North Korean vessel calling at ports in Latin America. At least two vessels, the O Un Chong Nyon Ho and the Mu Du Bong, docked in Cuba in May 2012 and May 2009, respectively. Both made voyages similar to the one just made by the Chong Chon Gang. Two other vessels, the Ryong Gun Bong and the Ap Rok Gang, have also made recent transits of the Panama Canal.

All of these vessels operate in a classic shell company network. In the case of the Chong Chon Gang, the registered owner is Chongchongang Shipping Co., Ltd., a company that does not appear to hold any other vessels. However, the company of real interest is the vessel’s manager: Pyongyang-based Ocean Maritime Management Co. This company is affiliated with more than a dozen other vessels, including all of those listed above. The pattern is common: a company is set up to act as a vessel’s nominal “owner,” but is in fact controlled by a much larger company. Iran has followed a similar pattern in seeking to evade international sanctions on its shipping sector.

Panama has called in United Nations experts to examine whether the Chong Chon Gang’s cargo constituted a breach of U.N. sanctions on North Korea. This would not be the first time that North Korea is found to be violating U.N. sanctions by shipping arms; but this publicized interdiction in Latin America is a first. It confirms the scope of North Korea’s proliferation reach and the need for global vigilance.