N Korea says Panama ‘must free’ arms ship
North Korea breaks silence four days after freighter carrying Cuban arms is impounded
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon praised Panama yesterday for seizing a North Korean ship carrying arms from Cuba, adding that the UN sanctions committee would take up the issue promptly. Cuba said the weapons were being sent back to North Korea for repair and included two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled rockets, two MiG-21 fighter jets, and 15 MiG-21 engines, all Soviet-era military weaponry built in the middle of the last century. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters
A soldier stands near two containers holding arms seized from the North Korean flagged ship Chong Chon Gang at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City yesterday. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters
Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli gives a thumbs up to workers inside a North Korean flagged ship, “Chong Chon Gang”, docked at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City on Tuesday. Photograph: Carlos Jasso/Reuters
North Korea broke four days of silence early today over a rusty North Korean freighter impounded by Panama for concealing a load of Cuban weapons, insisting that they were transported legally and demanding that the Panamanian authorities immediately release the vessel and its 35 detained crew members.
A statement released by North Korea’s foreign ministry described the weapons as aging armaments that needed refurbishment under a contract with Cuba. The statement also harshly criticised Panama for what it called that country’s pretext of searching the vessel for narcotics and its violent treatment of the crew.
It was the first time the North Korean authorities had said anything about the seizure of the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang on Sunday at the northern entrance to the Panama Canal, following what the Panamanians have described as a violent standoff with the crew members, who used cudgels to attack a boarding party of Panamanian marines as the captain claimed he was having a heart attack and tried to kill himself.
The boarding party arrested all aboard and discovered a cargo of Cold War-era anti-aircraft radar components and other antiquated armaments buried beneath more than 200,000 bags of Cuban brown sugar.
“The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of ‘drug investigation’ and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug,” the ministry said in a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korea Central News Agency. “Yet they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kind of cargo aboard the ship.”
The statement said, “This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them, according to a legitimate contract.” It demanded that Panama “let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay.”
The North Korean statement came a little more than a day after Cuba acknowledged that it owned the weapons. The Panamanian government has requested that the UN Security Council investigate its suspicion that the North Koreans had violated the litany of sanctions imposed over their weapons trading and proliferation activities.
The Chong Chon Gang, an aging vessel that has a history of run-ins with international maritime authorities for transporting narcotics and ammunition, has rarely visited Cuba or the Western Hemisphere, according to international maritime tracking services.
The mystery of the vessel’s voyage deepened yesterday with word that another old North Korean freighter, the 390-foot Oun Chong Nyon Ho, had made the same trip last year without attracting suspicion, passing through the Panama Canal and calling at the same two Cuban ports.
IHS Fairplay, an international maritime traffic monitor, said both vessels usually worked much closer to North Korea. “They don’t normally make these ocean passages,” Richard Hurley, a senior maritime data specialist at IHS Fairplay, said in a phone interview from the group’s London offices. “It’s intriguing to see two fairly small ships making the same pattern.”
Mr Hurley said a new review of IHS Fairplay tracking data showed that the two freighters were among five North Korean cargo vessels that had traversed the Panama Canal since 2010, underscoring the rarity of North Korean shipping in the area. It was not known what cargo the Oun Chong Nyon Ho might have carried to or from Cuba in 2012. IHS Fairplay’s tracking data showed that it made the same Cuban port calls as its impounded sister vessel, stopping first in Havana for a few days in May 2012, then visiting Puerto Padre, a major sugar export point, for five days, then returning to Havana for a stopover of about three weeks before heading home.
Mr Hurley said he could only presume that the Oun Chong Nyon Ho had picked up a load of sugar at Puerto Padre. Sugar is a major Cuban export, but North Korea is not a frequent customer. At the United Nations yesterday, a spokesman for secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that he was aware of the impounded ship’s reported cargo but that it was up to the security council’s sanctions committee to determine any violations.