May 3, 2017 2:00 am JST

Russia delays launch of ferry service with North Korea

New route seen undermining sanctions on Pyongyang

TAKAYUKI TANAKA, Nikkei staff writer

MOSCOW -- The launch of regular ferry service between North Korea and the Russian city of Vladivostok has been pushed back by at least around 10 days in a likely response from the Kremlin to growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The Vladivostok port authority had apparently given North Korea's Mangyongbong-92 cruise and cargo ship provisional approval to leave North Korea's Rason economic zone on Monday and enter the Russian port the following morning, but declined to give the final approval citing technical difficulties.

Russia's InvestStroiTrest, the route's operating company, is now preparing to launch the service on May 17. It said in a Tuesday announcement that it will finalize the date by the end of the week after speaking with the port authority.

It is extremely unusual for the launch of an international ferry service to be postponed at the last minute. But critics argue that the route, which will help strengthen economic ties between North Korea and Russia, would undermine the sanctions intended to dissuade Pyongyang from provocative actions.

The U.S. and China are exerting more pressure on the North even as the rogue state presses on with missile tests. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have postponed the launch to fend off criticism from countries trying in to rein in North Korea, including the U.S., China and Japan.

"President Putin played a diplomatic card" ahead of a Tuesday phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as a summit planned this month with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a diplomatic source said.

But Putin is not expected to cancel the ferry service altogether, given his interest in stronger economic ties with Pyongyang and in greater influence in the Korean Peninsula. With a presidential race coming up next spring, he also cannot appear to have yielded to Western pressures.

The Mangyongbong-92, which has been banned from Japanese ports, went through extensive renovations to prepare for the six round trips planned between Rason and Vladivostok each month. The inaugural service was supposed to carry roughly 200 passengers, including Chinese tourists and North Korean businesspeople, as well as North Korea-made clothing and other cargo. The North Korean passengers were also scheduled to attend a ceremony in Vladivostok to commemorate Russia's victory in World War II.

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