The Spanish Navy’s seizure of missiles aboard a ship sailing from North Korea to the Arabian Sea on Monday has again caught Cambodia’s notoriously loose ship registry in controversy, following media reports that the vessel was registered in Cambodia.
A dozen Scud-type, short- to medium-range missiles were found when the ship, the Sosan, was boarded by Spanish special forces in the Arabian Sea, about 965 km east of the Horn of Africa, the Associated Press reported.
The ship was “sailing under a Cambodian flag but believed to be owned by North Korea,” The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
Two Spanish warships, the Navarra and the Patino, part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom patrolling the area to apprehend al-Qaida members fleeing the war in Afghanistan, stopped the Sosan after the crew failed to identify themselves and tried to prevent boarding. After the Spanish fired shots across the ship’s bow, troops descended on the vessel by helicopter, detaining 20 crew members and questioning the ship’s North Korean captain.
Inspection of the ship’s cargo uncovered large containers of intact Scud missiles and missile parts hidden beneath a load of cement, the AP reported.
US explosive experts were called to secure the cargo, which is now being brought to port in Bahrain.
The US television network CNN reported officials saying the ship did not have a flag, its name was painted over, and it appeared to be a “stateless vessel.”
The Spanish Defense Ministry told CNN Wednesday the vessel a was a “pirate ship” operating illegally, while a Spanish official told CNN Wednesday that “a Cambodian flag was discovered on board.”
Cambodian-flagged ships have come under international scrutiny in recent years after several high-profile incidents were reported. Deadly accidents and illegal activities, including cocaine smuggling, have been linked to ships registered with the now-defunct Cambodia Shipping Corporation, an on-line “flag of convenience” operation that drew fire for failing to scrutinize who was registering ships, and what they were being used for.
Amid the controversies, the ship registry was taken from its private owners in July and turned over to the Cambodian Public Works and Transportation Ministry. New registry ownership has since been put to bid by the government.
The seizure of Scud missiles on Monday put weight behind the words of some Cambodian officials, who have said in the past they feared North Korean implications in Cambodia’s ship registry.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay claimed earlier this year that the Cambodian registry and CSC—which once had a North Korean businessman as a partner—was established primarily to help North Korean vessels gain entry to foreign ports.
“From the beginning, the reason to establish this kind of company was mainly to serve the interests of North Korea,” Son Chhay said at the time.
“I presume that the vessels would be more civilian vessels, to transport goods, maybe some of the secret goods, to different ports without notice by any international intelligence agencies,” he said.
Son Chhay could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
North Korean ships are not allowed to enter some ports, including those in the US. However, Cambodian-flagged ships are allowed entry, but with some restrictions. The North Korean involvement in CSC was long mentioned by investigators as further reason why the Cambodian registry was under close international scrutiny.
A US diplomat said on Wednesday the embassy in Phnom Penh would be following carefully the reports that the ship was registered under the Cambodian ship registry.
Seng Lim Neou, chairman of the government’s Bids Evaluation Committee that is considering proposals for a new registry operator, said he was unaware of the missile seizures on the Sosan or claims the ship was sailing under a Cambodian flag.
If the vessel is proved Cambodian-flagged, “…the name of Cambodia is blackened,” Seng Lim Neou said.
Seng Lim Neou said he did not have the information to check if the Sosan was on the Cambodian registry list. But more than 900 vessels were on the list when the registration process was frozen in July after being reclaimed by the government. That figure has likely fallen since then, Seng Lim Neou said, adding that three firms—two foreign and one Cambodian—have applied to run the flag registry. The successful bidder will be known shortly, he said.
The Marine Department of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation could not be reached for comment throughout the day on Wednesday.
The Singapore-based CSC, which had administered ship registration since 1995, was placed at the center of a government investigation following the seizure in June by French commandos of cocaine onboard a Cambodian-flagged freighter, the Winner.
Fears that militants may use sea vessels to deliver crude weapons of mass destruction has prompted the US to step up pressure on countries like Cambodia that offer so-called flags of convenience.
King Norodom Sihanouk in September called for an end to “the selling of the national flag to so many boats of the worst kind.
“By selling the national flag of the fatherland to boat owners dedicated to criminal trafficking and contraband, we sell the honor and the reputation of Cambodia, her people, her race,” the King wrote in his monthly bulletin.