A 430-foot-long North Korean freighter Mu Du Bong was riding high in the water when the vessel slammed into a coral reef in Mexican waters in the Gulf of Mexico last July 14, thudding to a halt. Salvage vessels pulled the freighter off the reef 12 days later and brought it to port in Tuxpan, where it’s been idle for nine months, moored to a wharf on the Tuxpan River. North Korea has declined to repatriate the 33 crew members.
Arms-trafficking practices led the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on a North Korean concern, Ocean Maritime Management Co. Ltd., that counts the Mu Du Bong among its 14 oceangoing freighters. Another of the company’s vessels was intercepted in Panama nearly two years ago, its cargo holds piled high with sacks of Cuban sugar. When inspectors removed the sacks, they discovered two MiG-21 fighter jets, 15 jet engines and radar control systems for missile launches. Cuba claimed the war materiel was being sent to North Korea to be refurbished and was to be returned.
“Thus far, 13 of the 14 vessels controlled by OMM have been renamed, their ownership transferred to other single ship-owner companies . . . and vessel management transferred to two main companies,” said a preliminary U.N. report dated Feb. 23.
William J. Newcomb, a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University who’s a former member of the U.N. Security Council’s panel of experts on North Korea sanctions, noted that the Mu Du Bong’s travels were similar to the activities of the Chong Chon Gang before it was caught carrying Cuban weapons. “It had all the earmarks of an arms transfer,” he said.