Days trapped on a freezing ship without fuel, and more than a week on rationed food: that was the fate of 30 North Korean crew members on a vessel, the Man Gyong Bong, stranded since January 31 off the coast of Vladivostok.

Despite sending a distress call, the ferry was refused permission to moor because of the potential that it might be carrying cargo prohibited by UN Security Council sanctions. On Friday, nine days after arriving in waters near Vladivostok, Russian authorities ordered that it make good its return to North Korea.

Afer finding itself running out of fuel in minus 20-degree Celsius conditions close to the Russian port on January 31, and being refused entry, the ship idled for days before sending an SOS signal on February 3.

“On January 31, officials from the Pervomaisky customs post communicated to the head of the port that they suspected the vessel was harboring cargo banned by the UN, as part of the sanctions regime against North Korea,” Mikhail Khmel, deputy director of Russian company InvestStroyTrest, which conducts sea trade with North Korea, and which manages the vessel, told Asia Times.

According to Khmel, the ship was situated outside Vladivostok’s maritime border and had not undergone a customs inspection. Because of that, it was denied a delivery of fuel. Only after the Man Byong Gong raised its distress signal on February 3 did a Russian boat sail out with an emergency supply of fuel.

“[The] North Korean sailors spent two days in the freezing cold. They began using the last-resort fuel supply, which had to be carried in buckets and [fed to the boiler] to heat the ship a few times a day for two hours at a time. This was not enough to warm through the ship,” Khmel said.

“The North Korean sailors spent two days in the freezing cold. They began using the last-resort fuel supply. This was not enough to warm through the ship”

On February 3, the captain of the vessel also introduced a regime of food rationing. When the food ran out, the crew gave another distress signal. They did not receive a delivery of food until February 8.

Vladivostok Customs staff claim the vessel was not allowed to moor because it was in violation of the sixth paragraph of resolution No. 2397, according to which North Korean sea and air transport, and citizens, are forbidden to deliver, sell or transfer food or agricultural products outside the country.

Khmel noted that the vessel had on board barrels packed with animal food.

Until the Russian authorities’ ruling, the vessel remained at sea near Vladivostok, and was afforded only the above-mentioned emergency supplies. InvestStroyTrest is planning to sue the port authorities for what it calls “unreasonable” grounding of the ship.

Artyom Lukin, deputy director for research at the School of Regional and International Studies, part of the Far East Federal University, told Asia Times ultra-severe sanctions in force against North Korea in connection with its nuclear program were posing major difficulties for North Korean ships. 

“The North Korean fleet is experiencing an ever more acute shortage of fuel. This can lead to tragedy”

“First, there is a whole group of sanctions, some of which are introduced by the UN Security Council, and some of which were adopted by individual countries such as the US, Japan and South Korea,” Lukin said. “These impose a lot of prohibitions and restrictions on vessels that fly the flag of the DPRK, or which are controlled by the DPRK. The prohibitions restrict what the vessels can do when they stop at international ports, limiting their freight operations, insurance, etc. Secondly, today almost all goods that North Korea used to export are banned,” which affects ships that carry North Korean cargo.

Lukin added UN Security Council rulings regarding North Korea also significantly limit the supply of petroleum products, including diesel fuel, on which most ships run.

“The North Korean fleet is experiencing an ever more acute shortage of fuel,” he said. “This can lead to tragedy. So, in recent months in the Sea of Japan, cases have increased when North Korean fishing boats and boats lose control due to a lack of fuel, they suffer disaster, and their crews perish.” 

InvestStroyTrest, based in Vladivostok, opened cargo-passenger ferry services between the ports of Vladivostok and Rajin in North Korea on May 18, 2017. Previously, no passenger ships from the DPRK went to Russia. In September, passenger traffic was suspended due to disagreements with Vladivostok sea terminal, but the ferry continued to operate, carrying cargo.

The Man Gyong Bong was built in 1992 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Kim Il-sung, and is named after a hill near Pyongyang. The vessel has cargo capacity of 1,000 tons and is capable of ferrying 193 passengers.