Ever since the 1950s when I was aware of the Soviet merchant marine’s Baltic SS Co vessels which linked Leningrad with Tilbury, I appreciated their gleaming white livery and red funnel markings of the elegant vessels on the service.
Early on, I realised that beautiful ships often represented regimes and countries that were not necessarily flavour of the month in the UK or in ‘the west’. I can recall fairly frequent times of political crisis during the so called ‘cold war’ when sometimes large numbers of personnel were filmed hanging over the rail of a beautiful motor ship at Tilbury, being expelled embassy staff off home to Russia following some ‘tit for tat’ exchange with alleged espionage often involved. I am obviously eccentric in taking more interest in the vessel carrying the expellees than the reason behind the scenes I was watching.
Moving forward 60 or so years, after the changes in the former Soviet Union, the ferries are long gone, being replaced by cheap and frequent flights, so the latest country that has taken over the role of international pariah is North Korea, which is just about surviving numerous embargoes and sanctions.
Of course, the world recently witnessed the transport adopted by North Korea to deliver its athletes and, no doubt, carefully selected supporters to the recent Winter Olympics to their erstwhile estranged neighbour, South Korea. And what vessel have they used? What else, but an elegant white liveried ferry with red funnel markings?
Sanctions were eased for the vessel, Mangyongbong 92 (9,672,’92), named after a Korean mountain, to permit transportation from the North and provide lodging during the Winter Olympics. She was escorted to the port in Mukho, a small port town about two hours from the Olympic stadium. Despite shortages back home, she was reported to be carrying a 140 strong orchestra and the ship was supplied with both a karaoke machine and had an, apparently, substantial cargo of ice cream.
From her appearance, she looks in reasonable shape being largely lo-lo. She can carry approximately 350 passengers and 1,000 tons of cargo and has a vehicle ramp on her quarter.
She certainly has a unique origin. She was Japanese built in 1992, reportedly, funded by Pro-North Korea ethnic Koreans living in Japan and was donated to the N Korean national leader Kim Il Sung – current leader Kim Jung Un’s grandfather – for his 80th birthday with accommodation fit for the Supreme Leader. The ethnic Koreans who donated the ferry used it to travel between Japan and North Korea, taking money and goods back to North. That came to an end in response to N Korean missile tests several of them heading toward Japan, and also due to the persistent rumours about the clandestine operations of the ship which last visited the south 16 years ago when it transported a cheer leader squad to the 2002 Asian Games in Busan.
But the ferry had become less associated with sport and peaceful exchanges than being used to smuggle parts into North Korea for their nuclear and missile programme. Smuggling drugs into Japan to earn hard currency was another accusation.