News / Americas

N. Korea Demands Release of Seized Ship

  • Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
  • Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container of a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
  • A police officer stands guard aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter, Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, July 17, 2013.
  • A police officer stands guard as investigation officers look inside a container holding military equipment aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter, Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama.
  • Antiquated military equipment in two containers aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 17, 2013.
  • Military equipment sits secured with wire aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 17, 2013.
  • A security officer walks on the deck aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
  • Military equipment lays in containers aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
  • A crew member sleeps on a mattress aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
Related video footage
VOA News
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.

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: thuong from: san jose
July 18, 2013 3:16 AM
North Korea has no power to demand anything....
Just a crying baby for food.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 18, 2013 2:11 AM
A similar incident was reported in 2020. It said a smuggling ship with war planes and arms made in Soviet Union was captured by the authrities of South Africa. Arms were shipped in China and went through Malaysia to DRC. Russia, China, Cuba and DRC, supporters to North Korea remain.


by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
July 17, 2013 4:04 PM
In the context of seizure of the North Korean ship with smuggled arms from Cuba, all shipments between Cuba and North Korea should be subjected to search and seizure by the international community of nations to stop illegal barter system between these two countries for mutual supply of illegal arms. The announcement of Cuba that the seized arms are for repair in North Korea does not explain the truth. If that is true, why the arms were not listed in the log of the ship? Why these arms were hidden under sugar? Why the crew resisted inspection and arrest? Why the Captain of the ship tried to commit suicide? What is the assurance that the so called outdated arms will be returned after repair in North Korea? Even outdated arms are lethal. Even sending arms for repair or not, circumvent the arms embargo. Since Cuba do not produce such arms and these arms are Russian made, the pipeline of arms smuggling starts from Russia to North Korea, via Cuba.

In Response

by: Christian B. from: San Jose
July 18, 2013 12:48 AM
These item's have probably been sitting in a basement in Cuba since the 60's and the Cuban president just sold them to NK when they came to visit. I wouldn't be surprised if the Cuban's themselves are the ones who tipped off the Panamanians to the ship's contents, knowing they wouldn't get in trouble for the shipment and they already got their money. If the weapons were ever used, they would be easily tracked back to Cuba, and I'm sure they knew that. If the US didn't already know this was happening, or even orchestrate it, I would want to look into exactly how NK planned on getting paid for these"Repair Services" or paying for these items, and start following the money.
Going forward, ALL ships, trains cargo planes and delivery trucks going into and out of NK by any means (land, air or water) should all be inspected for weapons or anything else they don't need to survive, as soon as they leave that countries territory.

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