Panama Seeks UN Inspectors for Seized North Korean Ship

A North Korean ship stopped by Panama laden with fighter jets and other undeclared military gear will be opened to United Nations inspectors to determine whether the cargo sent from Cuba violated international sanctions.

Panama has 350 workers unloading the ship, which was seized July 15 on suspicions it was transporting drugs, President Ricardo Martinelli said. Instead, the vessel carried anti-aircraft missile systems, missile parts and two MiG-21 jet fighters stored among 10,000 tons of sugar, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a July 16 statement. The hardware constituted “obsolete defensive weapons” that were to be repaired and returned, according to the statement.

The seizure spurred new concern that North Korea was flouting UN Security Council sanctions imposed to punish the regime over its nuclear-weapons ambitions. The sanctions forbid North Korea from buying or selling ballistic missile or nuclear technology.

“We are expecting a visit by representatives of the United Nations Security Council who have been invited to Panama at the request of the president,” Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told reporters in Panama City yesterday. The inspectors are expected to arrive by Aug. 5 and will “evaluate and determine what this is all about,” he said.

UN Security Council Resolution 1718 states that all UN member states shall “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” to North Korea of combat aircraft and missile systems. The resolution was unanimously passed by the Security Council in 2006.

UN Review

A UN panel of experts “will be conducting a thorough review,” said Morana Song, a spokeswoman for the UN secretary-general, in an e-mailed statement. She said the UN has no legal authority to take possession of the ship or its cargo.

Traffic around the port of Colon continued as normal yesterday while the ship remained under guard.

Photos of the captured vessel, the Chong Chon Gang, posted by Martinelli show what appears to be a fire-control radar for the Asian nation’s surface-to-air missile defense system, said Neil Ashdown, an analyst at IHS Jane’s. Another North Korean ship transited the canal and docked in Havana in May last year, IHS said in a report yesterday, citing satellite data.

Suicide Attempt

The Chong Chon Gang’s captain tried to commit suicide when the ship was seized, and about 35 crew members who were detained are now being held at a former U.S. military base in Panama, Mulino said. The crew continues to have a “hostile attitude” toward Panamanian authorities and will likely face legal charges in the country, he added.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry today called on Panama to release the ship’s crew, backing Cuba’s statement that the Chong Chon Gang contained aging weapons that needed repair and would be returned to the Caribbean nation.

It will take several more days to complete a full inspection after the crew sabotaged the boat before it was seized, Mulino said. The ship’s manifest listed sugar as the only cargo, the country’s drug prosecutor, Javier Caraballo, said in an interview.

The U.S. will be in touch with Cuban officials “very soon” and will provide assistance to Panama, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters yesterday in Washington, without saying what that assistance might be.

Praise for China

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry praised China for its efforts to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated in February after North Korea conducted a nuclear test before proposing talks with South Korea and the U.S. last month.

The agreements covering the delivery of the cargo “are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a July 16 statement. “The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law,” the ministry said.

At the port in Panama, dock workers opened two containers in the presence of reporters yesterday with contents similar to what was originally found on July 15. Mulino, the security minister, said he wasn’t sure what it was and that the country isn’t accustomed to military contraband.

“With drugs, we understand,” Mulino said. “This is new stuff.”

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