North Korean ship that sank last week may have been used for arms smuggling

A North Korean freighter with the not-entirely-Korean-sounding name of Chong Gen went to the bottom of the Tsushima Strait last week with nearly 5,720 tonnes* of rice aboard. The crew sent a distress signal and took to their lifeboats in time for the Japanese Coast Guard to rescue the entire crew of 26. All are reported safe.

Lucky them. Most North Korean ships that have arrived in Japan recently have carried only the dead.

Now, I’m no maritime expert, but 26 sounds like a very large crew. No doubt, the Japanese authorities, who are questioning the crew members, are wondering the same thing. So far, however, the Japanese are saying they don’t see anything out of the ordinary. This does not end our inquiry, however.

[Japan Coast Guard, via CNN]

Nampo is the port that serves Pyongyang, whereas Wonsan is a city for the poor, who will feel the loss of that rice most acutely.

A search of OFAC’s database for the ship’s IMO number (8862155) indicates that it isn’t designated by the Treasury Department, but this book implicates the Chong Gen in delivering multiple-launch artillery rocket systems to the port of Thilawa, Burma in 2010, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo that was already enacted in two separate resolutions (see also). Just over one year ago, Treasury designated (and froze the assets of) North Korea’s Ambassador to Burma under Executive Order 13687.

The investigative journalist (and legend) Bertil Lintner has written that the Chong Gen and other North Korean ships had previously been used to deliver weapons to Burma, returning with rice. None of the reports on the Chong Gen‘s sinking indicates that the ship had visited Burma in the weeks before its final voyage, but maybe one of you who has access to shipping databases can enlighten us.

For some interesting insights into the life of a North Korean merchant sailor, see this post by HRNK Insider.

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* Corrected, thank you.


  1. I’m no maritime expert either, but that ship looks way too small to carry 5,720 tonnes of cargo. I wonder if it was simply overloaded.

    (Note: the article says “tonnes”, not “tons.” A tonne is 1,000 kilograms, or slightly more than 2,200 pounds.)


  2. I’m neither a maritime nor logistics expert, but wouldn’t it have been much quicker and less costly to ship the rice via rail?

    DOT info from 2002 said 10 cents per mile/ton for water and 3 cents per mile/ton for rail.

    Also, it’s a much shorter distance by rail.


  3. 26 crew. A modern 9500 ton capacity freighter in the North Sea trade could use 10 or twelve crew under constraints to use technology to minimize wage costs: but in a slave state where wages are not considered, 26 is feasible, and would allow for a spy or two, two commissars (for crew and officers) and some layabouts too.

    Tonnage. Her Registered tonnage of 6500 is really just a way to calculate taxes. Her cargo carrying capacity is 9500 dwt or deadweight tons. That’s a nice small East Asian tramp.

    Rail. the economics of transportation are very complex. it is correct that, within the USA, rail costs are lower than inland barge costs — but there is no substitute for a vessel in international trade. Size matters, and the Chong Gen is not very large, but still can carry more than most single freight trains, even in the USA (where we go in for triple prime movers and long and heavy loads.) She was an economic way to move goods.

    Borders and bribes. How do you price the avoidance of borders? A railcar train from Burma (do they exist? Isn’t the Burma Road still fictitious because the mountains are too severe?) could pull the contents of Chong Gen, but with many more stops and inspections, and bribes.

    She was built in North Korea. It’s good she sank, diminishing their import ability by about 300,000 tons annually; it’s better the crew all escaped(suggesting in my experience a failure from suspected bad maintenance) and it absolutely stinks that a ship built by the NorKs was not on any boycott list. Someone isn’t earning the tax money I pay for him to do his job.


  4. 5720 tones of rice takes up about 9900 cubic meters, which is close enough to 9500 dwt tonnes to suggest she was fully loaded. That in turn suggests that the DPRK has access to $2.1 million in hard currency for that load (at the Chinese price of about $370/MT) Where’d the money come from. And, yippee, they’ve lost it.

    Inasmuch as the ship wasn’t blacklisted, let’s hope that the cargo wasn’t insured at LLoyds of London.


  5. Finally, she was sinking by the bow, and her engine-room was still operational (because her lights were on until she sank.) She was exhibiting the proper lights for a vessel not under control, indicating the NorKs are as good as the SoKos in professional navigation.

    It is possible she ran aground on a reef and tore open the forward part of the ship, but I’d’ve expected her to stand on her head to sink then.

    It looks more likely to me that, if she cut herself on a reef, it was amidships. But it’s winter and cold, and rotten old steel can just fracture.

    Ships (even NorK ships, built from stolen Russian or SoKo plans) are built to withstand flooding in two compartments. This ship has a forecastle compartment, four holds and an engine room. the engine room (invariably the biggest compartment) was intact till the end: the focsle is unlikely to have been holed since she sank on a level keel.

    So that leaves the holds. They could crack; rotten maintenance means rotten pumps, and many a ship has developed holes that just overcame the pumps, especially when they began to break down from over-work. But, even allowing for rotten maintenance, one would naturally also look at sabotage. It doesn’t have to be political: hatred of a brutal bosun would do.

    But the entire crew would be wise to accept Japan’s offer of lifetime hospitality.