Most watercraft featured on ASAD to date have been ocean liners or historic sailing vessels as well as the occasional smaller boat rather than cargo ships and the like. I recently obtained a large quantity of souvenir sheets from the Democratic Republic of Korea (“North Korea”) and had originally planned to feature a passenger ship from the 1978 set celebrating the country’s maritime heritage. However, the name Chong Chon Gang (청천강호 in Chosŏn’gŭl) stirred a memory of an incident that happened just over five years ago. Since that time, the North Korean cargo ship has been renamed the Tong Hung San, due to her previous operator being placed under a United Nations ban as a result of that July 2013 incident.
The 509-foot (155 m) general cargo ship was built in 1977 in Nampho (남포시), a city and seaport in South Pyongan Province approximately 50 km southwest of P’yŏngyang at the mouth of the Taedong River. The original owner was listed as Chongchongang Shipping of P’yŏngyang which was thought to be a front company answering to Room 39 (officially Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Workers’ Party of Korea, also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, or Office 39) — a secretive North Korean party organization responsible for state-sanctioned illicit activities such as the smuggling of prohibited items including weapons and luxury goods. Room 39 was created in 1974 as a department-level organization within the KWP Secretariat under the KWP Central Committee. Its primary role was, and still is, engaging in illegal activities in order to generate hard currency for the North Korean government.
The ship was named after the Ch’ŏngch’ŏn, a river having its source in the Rangrim Mountains of Chagang Province and emptying into the Yellow Sea at Sinanju, flowing past Myohyang-san and through the city of Anju, South P’yŏngan Province. This is where, in 612, the Goguryeo kingdom (고구려) defeated the Sui army at the Battle of Salsu (Ch’ongch’on) River in the Goguryeo-Sui Wars and in late November 1950, the Chinese army decisively defeated the UNC forces at the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, ensuring the existence of North Korea during the Korean War. U.S. Army defector Joseph T. White was reported to have drowned in the Ch’ongch’on River, according to a letter dated August 22, 1985, which had been sent to his family.
The Chong Chon Gang was assigned the IMO number 7937317 upon entering service in 1977. She is listed as a general cargo vessel with a tonnage of 9,147 GT, length of 509 feet (155 m), beam of 66 feet (20 m), and draught of 29 feet (8.9 m), carrying a crew of 35. Her call sign is HMZF.
There are no reported incidents involving the Chong Chon Gang for the first 25 years she was in service. The next 11 years would see that quiet service change dramatically beginning on February 26, 2003, when the Iranian government detained the ship at the port of Bandar Imam Khomeini (بندرامام خمینی) on the Persian Gulf. On March 11, 2009, Chong Chon Gang was chased by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea. The pirates shot guns and an RPG from a speedboat which damaged the ship and injured two crew members. After the attack, the ship caught the attention of maritime officials when it made a stop at the Russian naval facility in Tartus, Syria. It’s unknown why it was there.
In February 2010, Ukrainian authorities detained the ship at Oktyabrsk Port, Mykolaiv. It was carrying a heroin substitute, alcohol, cigarettes, and AK-47 ammunition. In March 2010, Egypt charged that the vessel was carrying “dangerous goods”.
From April 12 to July 11, 2013, the Chong Chon Gang sent irregular signals to the Automatic Identification System. This and “unspecified” intelligence prompted Panamanian officials to seize the ship on July 15 at Manzanillo International Terminal east of the Atlantic opening of the Panama Canal on Manzanillo Bay, Colón Province, Panama. Reportedly, when Panamanian troops approached the ship, its crew responded violently and the captain later attempted to kill himself.
A missile was found buried in a cargo of 250,000 bags of brown sugar, resulting in the vessel’s seizure. It was reportedly on its way from Cuba to North Korea. Cuba stated that the “obsolete weapons” on the ship were going to North Korea for repair. These weapons included two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine air defense missiles in parts, two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fighter planes, and 15 engines for them. All of these weapons were built by the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.
Panama President Ricardo Martinelli stated that, “The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.” Cuba claimed ownership of the weaponry while Panama seized the ship and the 35-man crew. All the vessel’s crew were released on January 30, 2014, with the exception of the captain, first officer and political officer who were kept in Panama to face charges of arms smuggling. The North Korean government paid a fine of U.S. $666,666 and the ship was released on February 16. The Chong Chon Gang had started its journey through the Canal in late April, but had to stop for repairs to her engine and electrical system.
On July 28, 2014, a U.N. Security Council committee blacklisted Ocean Maritime Management, which operated the Chong Chon Gang, subjecting the company to an international asset freeze and travel ban. In the implementation assistance notice, the North Korea (DPRK) sanctions committee said,
“Ocean Maritime Management Company, Ltd (OMM), played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms and related materiel. The concealment of the aforementioned items demonstrates intent to evade U.N. sanctions, and is consistent with previous attempts by the DPRK to transfer arms and related materiel through similar tactics in contravention of Security Council prohibitions.“
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, described the Chong Chon Gang incident as “a cynical, outrageous and illegal attempt by Cuba and North Korea to circumvent United Nations sanctions.”
The ship’s three North Korean officers were ordered to be released by a Panamanian court in late July 2014. In October 2014, the Chong Chon Gang was transferred to another North Korean owner, Tonghunsan Shipping Company, and renamed Tong Hun San.
On May 5, 1978, the postal service of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released a set of five stamps and a souvenir sheet honoring North Korea’s maritime heritage. As is typical of most releases by the country, the set is designed to appeal to a variety of topical collectors with the stamps themselves also depicting planes (a helicopter with the Chong Chon Gang) and the sheet margins including trains for good measure. During this period, it seems the majority of stamps depict non-Korean subjects thus it is refreshing to find one that depicts their own ships without any propaganda overtones.
The stamps were printed using the photogravure process, perforated 13½. The 2-chon lowest denomination portrays the freighter/ferry Man Gyong Bong (Scott #1693) along with a plane that looks like a Concorde but is probably the Tupelov TU-144 while the freighter Hyok Sin appears on the 5-chon value (Scott #1694). The Chong Chon Gang is on the 10-chon stamp (Scott #1695), the tanker Son Bang appears on the 30-chon (Scott #1696) and the 50-chon highest denomination pictures the freighter Tae Dong Gang (Scott #1697) which was an airmail stamp rather than general issue like the others. The five individual stamps, plus a non-stamp label bearing an unknown ship with the North Korean flag, were included in the souvenir sheet (Scott #1697a).