News / Asia

UN Sanctions Operator of N. Korean Ship Caught Smuggling Arms

North Korean sailors stand on the deck of the North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang in Sherman Bay near Colon City, Panama, February 12, 2014.
North Korean sailors stand on the deck of the North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang in Sherman Bay near Colon City, Panama, February 12, 2014.
VOA News

The United Nations imposed sanctions on the operator of a North Korean ship seized last year by Panama while trying to smuggle arms from Cuba.

The Security Council's North Korea sanctions committee voted late Monday to place an international asset freeze and travel ban on Ocean Maritime Management.

The committee said the company "played a key role in arranging the shipment," which included two Mig-21 fighter jets, missiles and other arms hidden under sacks of sugar.

"Obsolete" weapons claim

The Chong Chon Gang was stopped in July 2013 near the Panama Canal on suspicion of smuggling drugs. Cuba said it was sending what it called the "obsolete" weapons to North Korea for repairs.

But the U.N. committee said the concealment of the undeclared weapons "demonstrates intent to evade" international sanctions banning the export of arms to North Korea.

“Ocean Maritime Management Company, Ltd (OMM), played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms and related materiel,” the committee said in an implementation assistance notice.

“The concealment of the aforementioned items demonstrates intent to evade U.N. sanctions, and is consistent with previous attempts by the DPRK to transfer arms and related materiel through similar tactics in contravention of Security Council prohibitions,” the committee said.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, described the Chong Chon Gang incident as “a cynical, outrageous and illegal attempt by Cuba and North Korea to circumvent United Nations sanctions.”

She said the Security Council committee had “uncovered irrefutable facts that clearly prove Cuba and the DPRK's intentions to violate sanctions by employing highly sophisticated deception and obfuscation techniques.”

But some analysts, including University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo-jin, question whether such moves are really effective at stopping North Korean weapons proliferation.

"When (a North Korean company) is listed to the sanctions by the U.N. Security Council or other western countries, North Korea just changes the name of the company into a different one. Companies related to the ship Chong Chon Gang would change their name to different ones, so I think the decision is symbolic but does not have any effectiveness,” Yang said.

North Korea is under an array of United Nations and U.S. and other countries' sanctions for nuclear and ballistic missile tests since 2006 in defiance of global demands to stop.

A U.N. report issued in March said North Korea has developed sophisticated ways to circumvent United Nations sanctions, including the suspected use of its embassies abroad to facilitate an illegal trade in weapons.

Concerned by cooperation

The Security Council committee said on Monday that investigation found indications that North Korean officials in Havana helped make arrangements for the Chong Chon Gang shipment.

“The committee encourages states to continue to exercise enhanced vigilance over DPRK diplomatic personnel,” it said.

The committee said it was concerned the military cooperation between Cuba and North Korea violated U.N. resolutions, which “prohibit the transfer from the DPRK by its nationals or from its territory of advice, services or assistance related to the maintenance or use of prohibited arms and related materiel.”

“This prohibition covers many activities including repair, diagnosis, monitoring, physical and chemical tests, and any related services for such items,” the committee said.

A Panamanian court on Friday ordered the release of the Chong Chon Gang's three North Korean officers. Thirty-two North Korean sailors and the ship were released by Panama in February.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report from Seoul. Some information for this report provided by Reuters.

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