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Sanctioned Russian Smuggling Ship Spotted at China's Biggest Repair Yard

Lady R
A near-sister ship of Angara, Lady R, at a port in South Africa

Published Apr 25, 2024 8:43 PM by The Maritime Executive

A UK-based defense think tank has spotted a sanctioned arms-smuggling ship at a popular repair yard in China, illustrating continued ease of access for North Korea-linked vessels in the Chinese market. 

The U.S.-sanctioned vessel Angara has been linked to the Russian arms trade for years, and has been identified as one of the ships involved in the North Korea-to-Russia weapons pipeline. Under a secret agreement, Pyongyang funnels artillery shells and locally-built ballistic missiles to the Russian government, using a combination of rail and maritime transport. According to the Royal United Services Institute, Angara made at least 11 voyages for this sanctions-busting pipeline from Rajin, North Korea to Russian seaports between August 2023 and February 2024. It often operates "dark," with AIS off, but the crew turned on their transponder in the Korea Strait in early February while under way for China, RUSI told Reuters. 

Angara, in the years before her transfer to Russia's Pacific trade lanes

Using AIS and satellite imagery, RUSI followed Angara to a pier at Zhoushan Xinya Shipyard, the biggest private ship repair yard in China (and the world, according to the operator). Zhoushan Xinya is a repair yard of choice for many Western-aligned clients; recent jobs include a roster of ships from well-known Danish, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean names.

The Angara and ships like it are part of a Russian arms-smuggling operation that "flagrantly violates multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs) . . . that Russia itself supported," according to the U.S. government and dozens of other nations. The transfer and use of North Korean ballistic missiles helps Russia's invasion, but it also provides North Korea with real-world operational experience with its rocket technology. The transfer is only possible with logistics support from clandestine ships like Angara.

AIS data from Pole Star shows Angara arrived at Zhoushan Xinya on February 9, and the vessel has not tried hard to hide. Its transponder was on more or less continuously through April 24, and the small house-forward freighter has been spotted at the yard in satellite imagery. If the ship departs Zhoushan Xinya without any interference from Chinese inspectors, "then it shows China likely won't take any action on these Russian vessels," RUSI research fellow Joseph Byrne told Reuters. 

Angara's trackline to Zhoushan Xinya Shipyard, February 2024 (Pole Star)