Panama awaits experts to check weapons on North Korea ship
By Dialogo July 18, 2013
PANAMA CITY, Panama – Panamanian officials waited the arrival of U.S. and British experts on July 17 to inspect Cuban weapons found aboard a North Korean ship, as South Korean officials urged the United Nations to investigate.
Cuban officials said the arms discovered on the vessel near the Panama Canal among tons of sugar were “obsolete” Soviet-era missiles and parts it had sent back to Pyongyang for repair.
But Panama has urged UN inspectors to scrutinize the cargo, which could constitute a violation of the strict arms sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear program.
“The cargo is illegal because it was not declared. Anything that is not logged, even if it is obsolete, is contraband,” Security Minister José Raúl Mulino said. “We are awaiting the arrival of experts from the United States and Britain, per our request, as well as a technical team from the UN Security Council.”
Meantime, Panamanian officials charged each of the vessel’s 38 crew members “with an offense against collective security,” hours after North Korean authorities demanded the crew and ship be released, Attorney General Ana Belfon said on July 17.
The crew members are facing prison sentences between six to eight years, which could be extended if they used fake documents to transport weapons.
Panamanian officials said on July 15 they discovered military equipment, which it believed to be missiles, after impounding the vessel and conducting a narcotics search. A day later, Cuba, one of North Korea’s few allies, claimed the shipment as its own, with its Foreign Ministry listing 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons,” including two anti-aircraft missile systems, as being on board.
Also discovered were “nine missiles in parts and spares,” various MiG-21 aircraft parts and 15 plane motors, “all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century” and “to be repaired and returned to Cuba.”
“The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a prepared statement.
Panama President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a photo of the haul, which experts on July 16 identified as an aging Soviet-built radar control system for surface-to-air missiles.
Martinelli’s government said the munitions were hidden in a shipment of 220,000 pounds (100,000 kilograms) of bagged sugar aboard the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang. South Korea welcomed the seizure.
“If the shipment turns out to be in breach of United Nations resolutions, we expect the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions committee to take relevant steps expeditiously,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a prepared statement.
The United States also hailed the discovery and said it would offer assistance if asked. At the UN, diplomats said the seizure almost certainly represented a violation of UN sanctions.
Panamanian officials said on July 15 the crew resisted the search, and that the ship’s captain attempted to commit suicide after the vessel was stopped. The vessel and crew were still being held. Reporters were taken aboard the vessel – a rusting, dingy ship with a dank kitchen – on July 16. The only reasonably appointed room was the captain’s quarters.
It was sailing from Cuba with a crew of about three dozen when it was stopped by drug enforcement officials and taken into port in Manzanillo.
[AFP (Panama), 17/07/2013; La Estrella (Panama), 17/07/2013; DPA (Panama), 18/07/2013]