North Korea is demanding Panama return its ship and release the crew it detained after concealed weapons from Cuba were found on board. Pyongyang and Havana claim the weapons are for repair and return to Cuba but experts are investigating whether the two violated United Nations sanctions against North Korea weapons deals.
North Korea's official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) accuses Panama of rashly attacking the captain and crew of its ship, the Chongchongang.
Panamanian authorities say they seized the vessel this week on suspicions it was smuggling narcotics after leaving Havana. But, when they searched the ship, they found what appeared to be Soviet-era military weapons hidden under hundreds of bags of sugar.
KCNA quoted an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman late Wednesday admitting the ship carried a cargo of what he called "aging weapons." But the spokesman said it was part of a legitimate contract for overhauling weapons, for return to Cuba, and accused Panamanian investigators of taking issue with the shipment to justify what he called their "violent action."
Panama authorities, however, say it was the 35-man North Korean crew that rioted to try and stop investigation of the ship. They say the captain attempted to commit suicide. Authorities have said the crew remains uncooperative with investigators and could face criminal charges.
Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defense Network, a private research group in Seoul, says Cuba argues the weapons were for repair but, if they are for repair, it did not need to hide the container underneath the cargo and cover it with sugar. It looks like the weapons were hidden. In this situation, he says, we can judge that Cuba illegally exported weapons to North Korea, but it is up to the United States and United Nations to provide evidence.
United Nations sanctions outlaw any country from trading weapons with North Korea except light arms.
Panama has called in U.S., European and U.N. investigators to inspect the seized cargo.
Panamanian authorities say regardless of any contract between North Korea and Cuba, the weapons were undeclared and therefore illegal.
Cuba's Foreign Ministry issued an earlier, detailed statement admitting the ship carried 240 metric tons of weaponry.
It said the cargo included anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 airplanes and 15 spare plane engines.
Defense analyst Shin In-kyun says if investigators conclude North Korea was actually buying weapons from Cuba, stronger action may be called for and not only against Pyongyang.
He says the U.N. sanctions are against any country that exports weapons to North Korea. The United States and other leading countries in Europe support this regulation. He says if Cuba is found to have exported missile parts to North Korea, then sanctions could also be imposed against Cuba.
The U.N. sanctions were imposed on North Korea for its illicit nuclear weapons programs. In February Pyongyang tested its third, and largest, nuclear device.
Shin In-kyun says along with Cuba, North Korea also trades with some countries in the Middle East, such as Syria and Iran for military hardware.
This latest case, he says, will only strengthen the inspection of North Korean ships.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.