TOKYO • A Russian company will begin a regular ferry service between Russia and North Korea from next month, throwing a much-needed lifeline to the impoverished state amid a tightening of international sanctions.
The Nikkei Asian Review said last week the Mangyongbong-92 will sail between Russia's port city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East and Sonbong, a port in North Korea's Rason Special Economic Zone.
It will make six trips a month, setting off from the port in Rajin on May 8 and arriving at the port of Vladivostok the next morning.
The 9,000-tonne ship used to be the only regular direct link between Japan and North Korea, ferrying ethnic Koreans between the two countries. But, in October 2006, Japan imposed a ban on North Korean shipping following Pyongyang's test firing of seven missiles in July 2006.
The ferry, which can take 200 passengers and about 1,500 tonnes of cargo, has been used sporadically since the ban. According to vessel tracking site Marine Traffic, the Mangyongbong-92's most recent position was in the North's Wonsan port at the end of March.
The launch of the regular service is a sign of Russia's willingness to extend economic cooperation to North Korea despite Pyongyang's continued nuclear and missile provocations, reported the Nikkei.
Mr Curtis Melvin, a Washington-based North Korea researcher at the US-Korea Institute, said it was unlikely the new ferry service was driven by demand.
"However, the business managers may know something that we don't know," he told NK News.
Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun said in its editorial on Saturday the planned ferry service has put a "damper on international efforts to strengthen the encirclement of North Korea aimed at halting its nuclear and missile development".
"The new shipping route is likely aimed at boosting the number of North Korean workers sent to Russia - centring on the Russian Far East and Siberia - to earn foreign currency. The number has already reached the tens of thousands," the Yomiuri said.
It added that while the United States has called on China to impose stronger sanctions against the North, Russia's move to disrupt international unity cannot be overlooked.
News of the ferry service followed an announcement last Monday that from Aug 1, North Koreans will be able to visit the Russian Far East through Vladivostok without a lengthy visa application process.
Both countries recently concluded an agreement to allow more North Korean workers to work in Russia, reported the North's official Korean Central News Agency. These workers are sent to work in labour-intensive industries to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.
The UPI website also reported that the two countries planned to increase railroad cooperation and boost study-abroad exchanges for North Korean students.