Ferry between Russia and North Korea starts regular service

Once-weekly cargo-passenger service begins

(CNN) - A cargo-passenger ferry service linking Russia and North Korea completed its first trip Thursday.

The Man Gyong Bong ferry -- which boasts a restaurant, two fully-stocked bars, a karaoke club and sauna facilities -- left the port of Rajin in Rason, North Korea Wednesday and arrived in Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok at 8:00 am local time Thursday, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

The trip marked the beginning of a once-weekly regular cargo-passenger service, according to TASS.

An estimated 40 passengers boarded the boat for the maiden voyage.

"These are Russian citizens, who are returning from North Korea, and tourists from China," said Mikhail Khmel, deputy director general of Investstroytrest, quoted by TASS. The company owns RosKor, the ferry's operator.

Khmel said the vessel will make the return sailing on May 19. The company expects most of its passengers to be Chinese tourists, who will be able to visit both Russia's Primorye region and North Korea in one trip, he told TASS.

Previously, regular transport between the two countries was possible only by air or rail, making the Man Gyong Bong ferry the first scheduled cargo-passenger service to link Russian and North Korean ports, according to TASS.

"Rajin-Vladivostok international tourist liner Man Gyong Bong will be operated by the common efforts of the DPRK and Russia," reads a report by North Korea's state news agency KCNA.

"Man Gyong Bong's operation as Rajin-Vladivostok international tourist liner will make a positive contribution to developing marine transport and economic cooperation and tourism between the two countries," adds KCNA.

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North Korea's latest missile launch, despite landing just south of Russia's Pacific coast, has so far had no discernible impact on relations between the two countries.

Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has condemned the missile launch as "dangerous," he also warned against "intimidating" North Korea, a neighboring country that shares a 17 kilometer (11 mile) land border with Russia.

North Korea is facing increasing isolation over its missile development and Russia is one of the few countries that continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

"While Russia is concerned about North Korea and its missiles, it also sees North Korea as an opportunity to gain leverage with the West, the US in particular," said Matthew Chance, CNN Senior International Correspondent based in Moscow.

"Russia doesn't want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but the response from officials in Moscow has been minimal because they know Russia isn't one of Pyongyang's targets," he added.


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