Free from int’l sanctions, N. Korean ferry needs nod from Seoul to sail to South: officials

SEOUL, Feb. 5 (Yonhap) -- The 9,700-ton North Korean ferry Mangyongbong-92 is set to carry a North Korean art troupe across the inter-Korean border for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, having been cleared of questions over whether it would violate international sanctions. But it needs an exemption from South Korean sanctions in order to enter a South Korean port, while Seoul said it is ready to approve.

North Korea announced on Sunday that it plans to send the 140-member Samjiyon art troupe on the passenger ferry on Tuesday for two art performances they will stage in South Korea in celebration of the Olympics.

Though many North Korean vessels were blacklisted by the United Nations and put under embargo, the North Korean cargo-passenger ferry Mangyongbong-92 is free of international sanctions.

"The Mangyongbong-92 is neither subject to the United States' unilateral sanctions, nor to the U.N. sanctions," a South Korean government official said, adding that a local port entry of the North Korean vessel would not violate global sanctions.

Still, the vessel's South Korean trip runs counter to the South's blanket ban, imposed in 2010, on inter-Korean exchanges and transactions, according to government officials.

The so-called May 24 measures, imposed in retaliation for the North's torpedoing of a South Korean Navy Corvette in March 2010, ban any North Korean vessels from entering South Korean waters.

South Korea is willing to approve an exemption from the embargo as it seeks to take full advantage of the North's participation in the Olympics for its initiative to build peace with the North through the rare chance for sports diplomacy.

"Although our North Korea sanctions, May 25 measures, ban the North Korean vessels' entry into and navigation on our seas, (the government) is considering an exemption from the sanctions as part of the bid to host the Olympics successfully," Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said.

Seoul has also invited the U.S. to study the legality of the North Korean ferry's trip to the South to make sure the navigation steers clear of the multilayered sanctions imposed by the U.N., as well as individual countries, according to South Korean government officials.

"Seoul will make sure (the ferry's travel) would not come in violation of any sanctions through close coordination with the U.S. and the international community," the official said.

Possible supply of fuel or food for the ferry and the art troupe after they enter South Korean territory is expected to cause another round of debate on illegality as the current U.N. sanctions seek to squeeze oil exports to the communist regime.

"Even if some amount of petroleum is provided, it is unlikely to cause issues if the provision is made within a certain amount and is reported to the U.N. Security Council," according to the South Korean officials.

If an exemption from the South Korean sanctions is approved for the North Korean vessel, it would mark the second time North Korea has been given a break from the international sanctions imposed over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Last month, the U.S. approved an exemption from its sanctions on North Korea to allow a South Korea-flagged passenger flight to travel to North Korea to carry a group of North Korea Olympic athletes to the South.

The Mangyongbong-92 will anchor in a South Korean harbor on Tuesday and will be the accommodations for the visiting North Korean art troupe, spokesman Baik said, a setting which North Korea has selected to prevent its performers from being exposed to outside news and influence.

The planned Tuesday trip across the border will be the ferry's second visit to South Korea. The ferry transported a North Korean cheering squad and accommodated them during their stay here for the 2002 Busan Asian Games.

Source: Yonhap News Agency