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North Korean freighter runs aground off Mexico after stop in Cuba

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 a large and illegal shipment of Cuban weapons.

The 430-foot Mu Du Bong grounded Monday on a reef about seven miles from the Mexican port of Tuxpan, according to shipping industry officials. The job of pulling it off the reef will 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,” according to a report by the Agence France Presse. Tuxpan is known as one of Mexico’s main sugar exporting ports.

Port administrators told El Nuevo Herald they did not know whether the Mu Du Bong was entering or leaving the port. An official at the Captain of the Port’s office said no one there was authorized 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 tons of Cuban weapons and military gear were found hidden under 220,000 of 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, United Nations investigators found later.

The Mu Du Bong crossed the Panama Canal into the Caribbean on June 15. Its transponder signaled 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 Sunday that first reported its voyage.

For the next nine days, its transponder fell silent, Forbes reported. It started working again 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 jerry-rigged crane or an antenna.

Michael Madden, editor of the Web page North Korea Leadership Watch, said he would not be surprised by either possibility because improvisations are common in the country, particularly if materials and resources cannot be allocated efficiently.

It’s doubtful that it carried weapons to Cuba because its ownership records and bill of lading point to large entities that manufacture various types of civilian goods, Madden added. A third country also may have contracted the ship to deliver cargo to Cuba.

The Forbes report said shipping records show the two vessels share the same commercial agent, Ocean Maritime Management Company Ltd. U.N. experts who investigated the Chong Chon Gang incident said that company “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of (Cuban) arms and related materiel.”

The experts ruled the Cuban shipment to be a violation of the U.N. arms embargo imposed on North Korea in 2006 because of its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. No sanctions have been applied against Havana.

Panama authorities intercepted the Chong Chon Gang last July as it prepared to cross the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific side, after receiving a tip that it carried illegal drugs. Instead, they found 240 tons of Cuban weapons and military equipment.

The weapons included two MiG-21 jets, 16 engines for the MIGs, two anti-aircraft radar and missile systems as well as artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenade systems. Cuba said it had sent the “obsolete” equipment to Pyongyang to be repaired and returned, and argued that did not violate the U.N. ban on the “transfer” of weapons to Pyongyang.

U.N. experts who examined documents seized aboard the freighter reported they showed a “comprehensive planned strategy to conceal” the weapons. The military cargo was not listed on the ship’s manifest and its log skipped several days.

The Chong Chon Gang docked in Havana June 4-9 to unload cargo, then drifted off Cuba’s northern coast until June 20, when it docked in Mariel and took aboard the weapons. It left June 22 for Puerto Padre on Cuba’s northeastern coast, where it loaded the sugar, and left Cuban waters July 5 for North Korea.

“Perhaps it’s unlikely that North Korea would so brazenly attempt another smuggling run so close to America’s shores, so soon after the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang,” said the Forbes article. “But in dispatching the Mu Du Bong via the Panama Canal to Cuba, Pyongyang is at the very least sticking a thumb in America’s eye, and quite possibly testing the waters for future smuggling runs.”

The Mu Du Bong’s visit to Cuba was its second and the sixth visit to the communist-ruled nation since 2009 by a ship from North Korea — officially the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea — according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

The Po Thong Gang docked in Havana and Santiago de Cuba during one visit in 2011 and in Puerto Padre in April 2012. The Oun Chong Nyon Ho docked in Havana and Puerto Padre in May 2012.

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