Panama: Seized North Korea ship could face US$1 million fine
By Dialogo August 16, 2013
PANAMA CITY, Panama – The Panama Canal Authority said Aug. 15 it will impose as much as a US$1 million fine on the North Korean freighter caught with an undeclared shipment of Cuban weapons.
“It is a flagrant violation of safe passage through the Panama Canal and we have little tolerance for this kind of activity,” Jorge Quijano, the canal administrator, said, adding authorities are mulling the amount of the fine. “It is going to be sanctioned. It’s obvious that there were containers that had not been declared, not to mention what was inside them.”
The ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was boarded and searched July 10 on the suspicion it was smuggling drugs.
Instead, officials uncovered 25 containers of military hardware, including two MiG-21s, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles, buried under tons of sugar.
Cuban officials said they were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.
A team of United Nations (UN) experts is in Panama to inspect the weapons and determine whether the shipment violated a UN ban against arms transfers to North Korea.
Quijano said fines imposed by the canal authority range from US$10,000 to US$100,000 for serious violations and up to US$1 million for “very serious” violations.
“The case of the North Korean freighter is very serious,” he said.
Warships and ships carrying military or nuclear material routinely go through the canal, allowed passage even at times of war.
The only requirement is that canal authorities be given prior notice so that local authorities can take appropriate security precautions.
With 5% of the world’s trade passing through it, the canal is a strategically important chokepoint requiring tight security procedures.
Only four North Korean flagged vessels have transited the 80-kilometer canal in the past two years.
[AFP (Panama), 15/08/2013; La Prensa (Panama), 15/08/2013]