A new ferry service between isolated North Korea and Russia on Thursday docked for the first time at the Pacific port of Vladivostok, in spite of US calls for countries to curtail relations with Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.
The launch of the weekly service linking Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin also came despite the North’s test-firing of a new type of ballistic missile on Sunday that landed in the sea near Russia.
The ferry’s Russian operator said it is purely a commercial venture, but the service’s launch coincides with what some experts say is a drive by North Korea to build ties with Moscow in case its closest ally, China, turns its back.
The service is pitched at Chinese tourists wanting to travel by sea to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, the operator said.
China has no ports on the Sea of Japan, so traveling to North Korea and on to Vladivostok is the quickest way of reaching Vladivostok by sea.
“It’s our business, of our company, without any state subsidies, involvement and help,” Mikhail Khmel, deputy director of Investstroytrest, the Russia firm operating the ferry, told reporters.
The new ferry link comes in spite of recent calls by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for nations to fully implement UN sanctions and review their ties with Pyongyang to pressure it to give up its weapons programs.
“We call on all nations to fully implement UN Security Council Resolutions and sever or downgrade diplomatic and commercial relations with North Korea,” US Department of State spokeswoman Katina Adams said when asked about the new ferry service.
Adams noted Russia’s “obligation” under UN Security Council resolutions “to inspect all cargo, including personal luggage, of any individual traveling to or from” North Korea.
Journalists were unable to see passengers disembarking from the North Korean-flagged vessel Mangyongbong at Vladivostok, because Russian officials kept them away from the quayside, citing unspecified security reasons.
However, Reuters television was able to speak to three passengers, who said they were representatives of Chinese tourism agencies.
One of the passengers showed a photograph on her smartphone she said had been taken on board. It showed a plaque with an inscription in Korean which, she said, bore the name of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.
The US has been discussing possible new UN sanctions on North Korea with China, which disapproves of Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them, but remains its main trading partner.
Russia, especially the port of Vladivostok, is home to one of the largest overseas communities of North Koreans, who send home much-needed hard currency.
To date, there are no signs of a sustainable increase in trade between Russia and North Korea, but Moscow has taken a more benign stance toward Pyongyang than other major powers.
Speaking in Beijing this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was against North Korea’s nuclear program, but that the world should talk to Pyongyang instead of threatening it.
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