Was North Korean rustbucket stuck on Mexico reef sent to smuggle Cuba arms?
North Korean vessel aground on Mexican reef has similarities to one impounded in Panama
A North Korean freighter has run aground in the Gulf of Mexico just days after a stop in Havana that sparked comparisons with another Pyongyang vessel captured last summer with an illegal shipment of Cuban weapons.
The 130-metre Mu Du Bong grounded on a reef about 11km from the Mexican port of Tuxpan, according to shipping officials. The task of pulling it off the reef would be complicated and take several days, they said.
The ship was empty and planning to pick up cargo in Tuxpan when it ran aground because its captain "lost his bearings". Tuxpan is one of Mexico's main sugar-exporting ports.
Port administrators told the El Nuevo Herald they did not know whether the Mu Du Bong was entering or leaving the port. An official at the port's office said no one there was authorised to give information on the case.
Speculation about the freighter arose even before its mishap because its voyage was similar to that of the Chong Chon Gang, seized by Panama last summer. An estimated 240 tonnes of Cuban weapons and military gear were found hidden under 220,000 sacks of sugar.
Both freighters sailed in Cuba waters but their exact locations were a mystery for several days because there were no reports from their automatic location beacons, required by safety regulations. The Chong Chon Gang turned off its beacon to hide its locations, UN investigators found later.
The Mu Du Bong crossed the Panama Canal into the Caribbean on June 15. Its transponder signalled on June 25 that it was near the port of Mariel, and on June 29-30 that it was in Havana, according to a Forbes magazine article on Sunday that first reported its voyage.
For the next nine days its transponder mysteriously fell silent, Forbes reported. It started working again on July 10, showing the ship was in Havana and then sailed north into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the magazine article.
One shipping industry official called the freighter built in 1983 "an ugly old rust bucket" and said photos of the ship's deck show an odd mast surrounded by wires that could be some sort of crane or an antenna.
It was doubtful that it carried weapons to Cuba because its ownership records and bill of lading pointed to large entities that made various types of civilian goods, Madden added. A third country may also have contracted the ship to deliver cargo to Cuba.
The Forbes report said shipping records showed the two vessels shared the same commercial agent, Ocean Maritime Management Company.
UN experts who investigated the Chong Chon Gang incident said that company "played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms".