A letter found on the cargo ship at the center of a storm over the export of missile transport vehicles by China to North Korea shows the cringing efforts of the captain of the Cambodian-flagged vessel to ingratiate himself with Pyongyang.
The Asahi Shimbun exclusively revealed on June 13 that the Japanese government was holding documents implicating the 1,999-ton Harmony Wish in the export of four large military transports capable of launching ballistic missiles from China to North Korea last August. The documents were seized from the ship when it visited Japan in October.
The letter found during an earlier boarding of the vessel by the Japan Coast Guard was written by the Chinese ship captain, addressed to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
After the Harmony Wish anchored at Nagoya Port on Jan. 12, 2011, officials of the 4th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters conducted an on-board investigation after obtaining the captain's consent.
During the search, they found a copy of a letter written by the captain congratulating Kim on the 19th anniversary of his becoming supreme commander of the North Korean military on Dec. 24, 2010. Lavishing praise on Kim, it said the North Korean leader "possesses uncommon wisdom as well as deep and far-sighted thinking."
The captain told the Japanese authorities that the letter was written in mid-December 2010 when the Harmony Wish anchored at Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast. He said North Korean officials had asked that the letter be written. It is unclear whether the letter was ever actually sent to Kim.
The Harmony Wish last visited Japan only recently. According to a company in charge of harbor operations, the Harmony Wish anchored at Tobi Port in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, on June 8, carrying fireproofing materials from China. It departed at around 4:10 p.m. on June 13, but its destination was unknown.
The ship appears to have been part of a thriving secret trade linking Pyongyang with the outside world through China. Although the Harmony Wish is registered in Cambodia, almost all of its crew is Chinese, according to Japanese government sources.
Reports filed by United Nations member nations to the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council show a number of examples of the use of Chinese ports to get around economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
In November 2009, when North Korea tried to smuggle tank parts to the Republic of the Congo, the ship involved passed through China’s Dalian port.
In November 2008, a company based in Hiroshima exported 22 used pianos valued at 2.1 million yen ($26,400) to North Korea, also via Dalian. The company failed to gain the approval of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which was required because the pianos were considered luxury items covered by economic sanctions.
In other instances, products have been shipped through Chinese companies. In July 2009, the Italian government seized two luxury yachts that were believed to be headed for Kim. The yachts were originally ordered by an Austrian company, but the contract was subsequently turned over to a Dalian firm.
According to Japanese government sources, Japan, the United States and South Korea use spy satellites to try to track the export of weapons to North Korea in violation of Security Council resolutions.
However, China and North Korea appear to be well aware of the satellites and load and unload cargo ships at times when they are not overhead.
Japanese officials seized the document recording the export of the four large military vehicles in October. However, Japan, the United States and South Korea were not able to observe the actual shipping of the cargo from China, the sources said.
A government source also said there would be huge political risks when inspecting ships for suspicious cargoes if China was involved.
Another source said a difficulty in dealing with China is the uncertainty over whether only the military is involved or whether the entire government is aware of the exports to North Korea.
Chinese officials on June 13 brushed aside suggestions that the military vehicles were exported in violation of the Security Council resolution.
At a news conference, Liu Weimin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said, "I want to emphasize that Chinese companies would never export products that are banned from exporting by Security Council resolutions and Chinese law."
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