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Cuba Acknowledges Ownership of Weapons on Intercepted North Korean Ship in Panama

By Dialogo
July 18, 2013

The missiles, aircraft and anti-aircraft systems intercepted by Panama on an old North Korean vessel that is detained at the port of Colon belongs to Cuba, and the cargo was sent to the Asian nation for reparations, Cuban authorities acknowledged on July 16.

Panamanian Coast Guards boarded the North Korean freighter named Chong Chon Gang, which carried 220,000 quintals of sugar, and found containers that presumably carried sophisticated missile systems in the cargo holds, Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli stated.

“We were suspicious that (the boat) had drugs, so we brought it to port and started to examine everything onboard the ship, which came from Cuba and was headed to North Korea,” said Martinelli.

Almost 24 hours after announcing the interception, after authorities boarded the ship on July 17, Havana recognized that the weapons were their property, and that they had been sent to North Korea to be repaired.

“The ship carried 240 metric tons of obsolete defensive armament – two complex Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft rockets, nine rockets in parts and pieces, two Mig-21 Bis airplanes and 15 engines for this sort or aircraft, all manufactured in the mid 20th century, in order to be repaired and returned to our country,” Cuban foreign affairs said in a statement.

“We will resort to partner nations for help to see what is in these containers” because “we really have no knowledge about these weapons,” Martinelli said during a visit to the old, rusty and dirty ship, escorted by the press.

Patrick Ventrell, representative of the U.S. State Department, said, “the United States strongly supports Panama’s sovereign decision to examine the North Korean ship” and “welcomes the actions that the Panamanian government has made for this case.”

The United States is “ready to cooperate” with Panama if requested, Ventrell added, without giving any further details.

A photo published via Twitter by the president allowed IHS Jane’s experts to identify part of the cargo as a RSN-74 Far Song radar fire control system developed in 1957, used with SA-2 surface missiles and widely used during the Vietnam War.

The Vessel Departed from Havana

“The ship left Cuba from the port of Havana. Furthermore, Cuban diplomats were in Panama on July 13 in a meeting with the president to talk about this subject, but then we were only considering that it was a drug-related issue,” said Panamanian Security Minister José Raúl Mulino, on July 16.

A full inspection “might take a week. We have only opened one cargo hold compartment and there are four others,” presidential spokesman Luis Eduardo Camacho told AFP.

About 5% of international trade circulates through the Panama Canal, for which an expansion that should be ready by late 2014 is currently in place, in time for the 100-year anniversary of the interoceanic passage.

Military and merchant vessels that carry war material can transit through the canal, although these cargos must be declared in advance, since they require a special protocol, an official from the canal explained.

The Captain Attempted Suicide

“The ship never entered the canal. Panamanian authorities boarded the vessel when it was waiting for its turn,” a source from Panama Canal Authority (ACP) told AFP.

The 35 crewmembers are “detained, since they not only resisted (the seizure), but also tried to sabotage the inspection,” presidential spokesman Camacho said, and added that the captain of the ship, who was not identified by name, “had a mild heart attack, and then tried to commit suicide.”

According to the first prosecutor for drug trafficking Javier Caraballo, the crew is now “in good conditions” and has been transferred to Sherman Military Base in Colon, where they will be interrogated in the next few hours in order to determine their legal situation.

This ship was detained in June 2012 in Ukraine, when illicit substances were found aboard.

In addition, it was reported that the vessel had transported steel sheets through the Panama Canal about a month ago.

Cuba is one of the few countries that have bonds with Pyongyang’s regime, which is severely isolated in the international community due to their nuclear tests.

Mainly, the island has soviet armament, which it got for free from its communist allies until the end of the 1980s.

A North Korean military chief visited Cuba about two weeks ago, and was awarded with the “Order of Solidarity.”