Panama: North Korean arms shipment a matter for United Nations

By Dialogo
July 17, 2013

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Panama on July 16 called for United Nations investigators to inspect a shipment of suspected weapons parts found aboard a North Korean-flagged vessel as it tried to enter the Panama Canal last week.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a photo of the contraband haul, which experts have identified as an aging Soviet-built radar control system for surface-to-air missiles.
The government said the contraband munitions were hidden underneath thousands of bags of sugar aboard the Chong Chon Gang, which was stopped on suspicion it was transporting narcotics.
Officials said if the shipment is indeed determined to contain missile components, it would likely be a violation of tough UN sanctions against North Korea.
Panamanian Security Minister José Raúl Mulino told RPC Radio the affair is a matter for UN investigators.
“The Security Council will have to send experts,” he said.
The United States hailed the Panamanian action.
“We stand ready to cooperate with Panama should they request our assistance,” Patrick Ventrell, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said, reiterating that any shipments or “arms or related material” would violate several UN Security Council resolutions.
Meantime, authorities in Panama City said they were continuing to unload thousands of bags of sugar that had concealed the suspected weapons shipment.
Panamanian officials said the crew resisted and the ship’s captain attempted to commit suicide after the vessel was stopped, which made the shipment even more suspicious, according to experts.
Martinelli said the ship, which was sailing from Cuba with a crew of 35, was targeted on July 12 by drug enforcement officials as it approached the canal and was taken into port in Manzanillo.
After a search, officials found the contraband missiles hidden in a shipment of 100,698 kilograms of sugar.
“The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” Martinelli told Radio Panama on July 16.
The vessel was being held in a restricted zone, and the crew was being detained, officials said. So far, no drugs have been found on board.
Luis Eduardo Camacho, a spokesperson for Martinelli, said an examination of the ship by weapons specialists may take as long as a week.
North Korea defiantly carried out its third nuclear weapons test in February, triggering even tighter UN sanctions.
Experts said it is unclear whether North Korea has the technology to build a nuclear warhead for a missile.
UN sanctions bar the transport of all weapons to or from North Korea apart from the import of small arms. Several of the country’s ships have been searched in recent years.
In July 2009, a North Korean ship heading to Myanmar, the Kang Nam 1, was followed by the U.S. Navy due to suspicions it was carrying weapons. It turned around and headed back home.
There has been, as yet, no reaction from North Korean officials over the quarantining of the ship in Panama, officials in the Central American nation said. Cuba acknowledged it sent the weapon system to North Korea to be repaired, according to a prepared statement by the Cuban Foreign Ministry on July 16.
A total of 5% of the world’s commerce travels through the century-old Panama Canal, and that’s expected to increase, posing challenges for policing it.
[AFP (Panama), 17/06/2013; La Estrella (Panama), 16/07/2013; BBC Mundo (Panama), 16/07/2013]