North Korea is demanding that Panama release a Pyongyang-flagged ship seized in Panamanian waters, saying the commandeered Cuban arms shipment on board was part of a legitimate deal.
In a statement late Wednesday, Pyongyang's foreign ministry described the cargo as "aging" Cuban weapons that North Korea agreed under contract to overhaul. The statement also called for the immediate release of the ship, the Chong Chon Gang
, and its crew.
Hours earlier, Panama called on the United Nations to investigate the seizure, as allegations swirled that the North Korean ship was smuggling arms in breach of U.N. sanctions.
Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said his government asked the world body how to proceed with the case, and said Panama intends to forward the ship to U.N. custody.
Mulino also said two more containers with suspected arms have been discovered and the 35 ship crew members are to be charged with crimes against Panama's internal security.
Panama stopped the ship Monday on suspicion it was carrying drugs, but instead found the weapons hidden under a shipment of brown sugar.
Cuba says the arms discovered on the vessel among tons of sugar were "obsolete" Soviet-era missiles and parts it had sent to Pyongyang for repair. Mulino counters that the weaponry was not logged as cargo, and is therefore contraband, "even if it is obsolete."
Communist Cuba is one of North Korea's few allies. It is isolated from much of the international community in part because of its rogue nuclear weapons and missile programs.
U.N. sanctions forbid North Korea from buying or selling ballistic missile or nuclear technology. The sanctions were tightened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February.
Vessel seizure spotlights sanctions, illicit trade issues
Brad Glosserman, an analyst with the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum, said the incident may show the effectiveness behind the sanctions, which were expanded following the North's third nuclear test in February.
"I think we should be taking some comfort in the notion that other countries are getting serious about trying to put the squeeze on North Korea and trying to convince them that they need to be better citizens," he said.
Stephen Noerper with the New York-based Korea Society agrees that inspection of North Korea's international shipping may be getting stronger following the sanctions expansion.
But he said the shipment shows that North Korea remains a threat to the international community, even if the equipment is "very outdated."
"It doesn't take modern equipment to create destruction and to create fear, as we saw in 2010 with the sinking of the [South Korean Navy ship] Cheonan," he said.
Noerper also believes it is not likely that Cuba was sending the weaponry to North Korea for repairs, as the Cuban foreign ministry suggested.
The United States says it "strongly supports" Panama's seizure of the ship. State Department Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. stands ready to cooperate with Panama if it requests help.
Ventrell said the Chong Chon Gang has a history of involvement in drug smuggling, and that the U.S. is in touch with Panama and is still gathering information on the exact contents of the ship.
Communist Cuba is one of few allies of North Korea, which is isolated from much of the international community in part because of its nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said Wednesday the shipment of military equipment and Cuban sugar seized by Panama was apparently part of a flourishing barter trade between Pyongyang and Havana designed to get around U.N. trade sanctions and arms embargoes.
"North Korea is poor and its people hungry, but it has an abundance of Soviet-era military equipment as well as the technicians to service, repair and upgrade old Soviet or Chinese military equipment in exchange for food or much-needed foreign currency," SIPRI said.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.