PHNOM PENH —
Following a report on Monday that a North Korean ship flying Cambodian colors had been seized with a huge cache of weapons, the Cambodian government has denied its flag of convenience, saying that it completely stopped this business in 2016.
The Washington Post reported that a secret message was passed from Washington to Cairo last August about “a mysterious vessel steaming toward the Suez Canal.” The bulk freighter, named Jie Shun, was flying Cambodian colors but had sailed from North Korea, it added.
According to the report, Egyptian customs officers swarmed the ship and discovered a cache of more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Tuesday, saying that the use of the Cambodian flag of convenience by any ship, including the Jie Shun, is illegal.
The ministry added that the government had terminated its contract with the Cambodian Ship Registration Management Committee (ISROC) in August 2015, but allowed ships with valid certificates to continue using the flag until the end of August the following year.
“Any ships claimed to be under the Cambodian flag after this due date are considered illegal and subjected to applicable international laws and regulations,” the statement said.
The ministry said a diplomatic note was sent to the South Korean embassy in Phnom Penh in March 2016, notifying them that three vessels owned by a North Korean firm and using the Cambodian flag of convenience had been deregistered in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.
Cambodia’s flag of convenience scheme has been a frequent source of controversy since beginning in 1995, with Cambodian-flagged vessels implicated in illegal fishing activities and caught in a string of drug and weapons seizures.
Chan Dara, director-general of waterways, maritime transport, and ports at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, told VOA Khmer that the government informed the International Maritime Organization of the closure of the scheme last year.
Dara said the government decided to end the scheme because of monitoring problems, technical issues, and reports of illegal fishing.
“There was still a cheat in using our flag and we were (finding it) difficult to monitor. Due to these difficulties, we decided to stop since problems occurred constantly,” he said.
He added that Cambodia is now attempting to put better mechanisms into place, through laws and training, in hopes of re-opening the flag of convenience scheme in the future.
“This work is so complicated and it takes time,” he said.
Dara added that the big benefits of the business came not from allowing vessels to register with the Cambodian flag, but having Cambodian workers aboard the ships.
In 2014, The European Union banned fish imports from Cambodia because of illegal fishing operations under flags of convenience.
European Union Ambassador George Edgar told VOA Khmer that the EU has been in talks with the Cambodian government for four years regarding the use of Cambodia's flag and other issues related to “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.”
“Recent steps including the closure of the shipping register and commitments by the Royal Government to update Cambodia's legal framework in relation to maritime issues have been welcomed by the EU,” he said via email.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer in international affairs at Naresuan University in Thailand, said vessels using the Cambodian flag have done so as a cover not only for illegal fishing but drug trafficking, petrol smuggling, and arms trading.
“Cambodia does not want great powers such as China, the EU, and the US to consider that Cambodia is supporting nefarious businesses such as these,” he told VOA Khmer.
Chambers added that Cambodia also needs to work harder to monitor all vessels passing through its waters.