New ferry links North Korea and Russia despite US calls for isolation

People arrive aboard the North Korean ferry, the Mangyongbong, at the port of the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia. (Reuters)
Updated 19 May 2017
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New ferry links North Korea and Russia despite US calls for isolation

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia: A new ferry between isolated North Korea and Russia docked for the first time at the Pacific port of Vladivostok, in spite of US calls for countries to curtail relations with Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programmes.
The launch of the weekly service linking Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin also came despite North Korea's test-firing of a new type of ballistic missile on Sunday that landed in the sea near Russia.
The ferry's Russian operators say it is purely a commercial venture, but the service's launch coincides with what some experts say is a drive by North Korea to build ties with Moscow in case its closest ally China turns its back.
The service is pitched at Chinese tourists wanting to travel by sea to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, according to the operators.
China has no ports on the Sea of Japan, so travelling to North Korea and on to Vladivostok is the quickest way of reaching Vladivostok by sea.
"It's our business, of our company, without any state subsidies, involvement and help," Mikhail Khmel, the deputy director of Investstroytrest, the Russia firm operating the ferry, told reporters.
The new ferry link comes in spite of recent calls by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for countries to fully implement U.N. sanctions and review their ties with North Korea to pressure it to give up its weapons programmes.
"We call on all nations to fully implement U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and sever or downgrade diplomatic and commercial relations with North Korea," a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Katina Adams, said when asked about the new ferry service.
Adams noted Russia's "obligation" under U.N. Security Council resolutions, "to inspect all cargo, including personal luggage, of any individual travelling to or from" North Korea.
Journalists were unable to see passengers disembarking from the North Korean-flagged vessel Mangyongbong at Vladivostok because Russian officials kept them away from the quayside, citing unspecified security reasons.
But Reuters television was able to speak to three passengers, who said they were representatives of Chinese tourism agencies.
One of the passengers showed a photograph on her smartphone she said had been taken on board. It showed a plaque with an inscription in Korean which, she said, bore the name of North Korea's long-dead founder Kim Il Sung.
The United States has been discussing possible new U.N. sanctions on North Korea with China, which disapproves of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them, but remains its main trading partner.
Washington is looking to toughen U.N. sanctions to cut off Pyongyang's sources of funding and to block smuggling of materials needed for its weapons programmes.
Russia, especially the port of Vladivostok, is home to one of the largest overseas communities of North Koreans, who send home much-needed hard currency.
To date, there are no signs of a sustainable increase in trade between Russia and North Korea, but Russia has taken a more benign stance towards Pyongyang that other major powers.
Speaking in Beijing this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was against North Korea's nuclear programme, but that the world should talk to Pyongyang instead of threatening it.
Asked about the ferry, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday she "didn't see a connection" between the new service and political issues.


Fury clouds funeral plans for Italy bridge victims

Updated 17 August 2018
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Fury clouds funeral plans for Italy bridge victims

  • The collapse of the Morandi bridge, a decades-old viaduct that crumbled in a storm on Tuesday killing at least 38 people, has stunned and angered the country
  • According to La Stampa newspaper, the families of 17 victims have refused to take part in the state funeral, while a further seven have yet to decide whether they will attend

GENOA: Grieving relatives wept over the coffins of dozens of victims of Genoa’s bridge disaster Friday amid growing fury over a planned state funeral, while rescuers pressed on with their tireless search for those missing in the rubble.
The collapse of the Morandi bridge, a decades-old viaduct that crumbled in a storm on Tuesday killing at least 38 people, has stunned and angered the country, with Italian media reporting that some outraged families would shun Saturday’s official ceremonies.
Italy’s government has blamed the operator of the viaduct for the tragedy and threatened to strip the firm of its contracts, while the country’s creaking infrastructure has come under fresh scrutiny.
Authorities plan a state funeral service on Saturday at a hall in Genoa, coinciding with a day of mourning.
Relatives who gathered at the hall on Friday embraced and prayed over lines of coffins, many adorned with flowers and photographs of the dead.
But according to La Stampa newspaper, the families of 17 victims have refused to take part, while a further seven have yet to decide whether they will attend.
“It is the state who has provoked this; let them not show their faces, the parade of politicians is shameful,” the press cited the mother of one of four young Italians from Naples who died.
The father of another of the dead from Naples took to social media to vent his anger.
“My son will not become a number in the catalogue of deaths caused by Italian failures,” said his grieving father, Roberto.
“We do not want a farce of a funeral but a ceremony at home.”
Despite fading hopes of finding survivors, rescue workers said they had not given up as they resumed the dangerous operation to search through the unstable mountains of debris.
“Is there anyone there? Is there anyone there?” one firefighter shouted into a cavity dug out of the piles of concrete and twisted metal, in a video published by the emergency services.
Between 10 and 20 people are still missing, according to Genoa’s chief prosecutor.
Ten people remain in hospital, six of them in a serious condition.
Hundreds of rescuers are using cranes and bulldozers to cut up and remove the biggest slabs of the fallen bridge, which slammed down onto railway tracks along with dozens of vehicles.
“We are trying to find pockets in the rubble where people could be — alive or not,” fire official Emanuele Gissi told AFP.
Officials say about 1,000 people in all are working on the disaster site, 350 of them firefighters.
The populist government has accused infrastructure giant Autostrade per L’Italia of failing to invest in sufficient maintenance and said it would seek to revoke its lucrative contracts.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded that the company offer up to 500 million euros ($570 million) to help families and local government deal with the aftermath of the disaster.
The dead also include children, one as young as eight, and three Chileans and four French nationals.
The French nationals, all in their 20s, had traveled to Italy for a music festival, and other victims included a family setting off on holiday and a couple returning from their California honeymoon.
More than 600 people were evacuated from around a dozen apartments beneath the remaining shard of bridge.
On Thursday evening the first residents of some buildings in the affected area were allowed to return home, though others are too badly damaged to save.
The Morandi viaduct dates from the 1960s and has been riddled with structural problems for decades, leading to expensive maintenance and severe criticism from engineering experts.
Its collapse prompted fears over aging infrastructure across the world.
Italy has announced a year-long state of emergency in the region.
Autostrade, which operates and maintains nearly half of Italy’s motorways, estimates it will take five months to rebuild the bridge.
It denies scrimping on motorway maintenance, saying it has invested over one billion euros a year in “safety, maintenance and strengthening of the network” since 2012.
Atlantia, the holding company of Autostrade which is 30 percent owned by iconic fashion brand Benetton, has warned that the government would have to refund the value of the contract, which runs until at least 2038.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Autostrade “had the duty and obligation to assure the maintenance of this viaduct and the security of all those who traveled on it.”
The disaster is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of a faltering economy.
Senior government figures have also lashed out at austerity measures imposed by the European Union, saying they restrict investment.
But the European Commission said it had given Rome billions of euros to fix infrastructure.