UPDATED at 10:35 A.M. EST on 2015-09-17
North Korea plans to send a crew to retrieve a cargo ship in the custody of Mexican authorities for more than a year after it became stranded on a coral reef, saying the vessel is a site of historical significance because it had been visited by members of regime leader Kim Jong Un’s family, according to sources.
The 6,700-ton Mu Du Bong ran aground nine miles (14.5 kilometers) northeast of the port city of Tuxpan, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, after setting out from Cuba in July 2014 with 33 crew members aboard.
All of the crew was repatriated a year later, but Mexico has retained custody of the Mu Du Bong citing United Nations sanctions monitors who say the freighter belongs to a blacklisted shipping firm.
The new crew members will be dispatched on order of North Korean authorities to “retrieve the Mu Du Bong at all costs,” a source based in China with knowledge of the situation told RFA’s Korean Service, adding that the group will include the bare minimum of personnel needed to pilot the vessel.
“The newly selected crew members are waiting on their Mexican visas, and once they receive them, the crew will be on their way,” said the source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
According to the source, North Korea’s Ministry of Land and Marine Transportation—which applied for the visas on behalf of the new crew—has “a key reason” for ensuring the safe return of the Mu Du Bong.
“The authorities are pressuring the ministry to collect the ship because it is considered a ‘revolutionary historic site’ visited by the Kim family,” he said.
“If the crew cannot bring home the ship, the relevant officials are sure to be punished.”
Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un's grandfather and the founder of North Korea, is believed to have visited the freighter sometime during the 1970s or 1980s.
Authorities in Mexico initially held the 33 crew members of the Mu Du Bong after the ship ran aground because of a disagreement with North Korea over its ownership.
Mexico has said the Mu Du Bong belongs to North Korea’s Ocean Maritime Management—a firm blacklisted by the U.N.'s sanctions committee for engaging in illicit arms trades in the past—and continues to hold the vessel at port in Tuxpan, despite sending its 20 crew members home earlier this year and the remaining 13 in July.
Pyongyang’s top envoy to the U.N. has denied the claims, saying the ship sails under the direction of the Ministry of Land and Marine Transportation, and in April threatened to employ “necessary measures” to secure its release.
North Korea is under U.N. sanctions stemming from its illicit nuclear tests and missile launches in defiance of international bans. Pyongyang is prohibited from trading in arms, nuclear and missile technology, and from importing luxury goods.
In July 2014, the U.N. blacklisted Ocean Maritime Management for an illegal shipment on a freighter known as the Chong Chon Gang after it was found to be carrying arms hidden under crates of Cuban sugar.
Recent reports suggest officials with North Korea’s Ministry of Land and Marine Transportation have good reason to ensure the order to bring the Mu Du Bong home is carried out.
Since assuming control of North Korea following the death of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il in December 2011, regime leader Kim Jong Un has carried out a near-continuous series of high-level purges, including one of his own uncles in late 2013.
At least 15 senior officials are reported by South Korea’s intelligence service to have been executed so far in 2015, including two vice-ministers who had challenged Kim over forestry policy and construction plans, respectively, and four senior members of an elite musical troupe.
North Korea executed Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol in April for acts of disloyalty to Kim Jong Un, including falling asleep during a meeting attended by Kim, according to South Korea’s spy agency.
South Korean lawmakers were quoted by Seoul’s Yonhap news agency as saying that Hyon, who was close to Kim and had appeared in state media a day before his execution, was shot at close range by an anti-aircraft gun in a public execution on April 30 watched by hundreds of officials.
Reported by Jung Young for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Kim Jong Un purged his uncle last year.