July 16, 2013

Panama finds suspected weapons on N. Korean ship

The ship appeared to be transporting illegal missile-system parts from Cuba to North Korea, which would violate a United Nations embargo.

By Juan Zamorano / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Military equipment lays in containers aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. A North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is under a United Nations arms embargo, Panamanian officials said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

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Police patrol by boat next to the North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang docked at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Panama's president said the country has seized the ship, carrying what appeared to be ballistic missiles and other arms that had set sail from Cuba. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Additional Photos Below

Panamanian authorities believe the ship was returning from Havana on its way to North Korea, Panamanian Public Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told The Associated Press. Based on unspecified intelligence, authorities suspected it could be carrying contraband and tried to communicate with the crew, who didn't respond. Martinelli said Panama originally suspected drugs could be aboard.

The 35 North Koreans on the boat were arrested after resisting police efforts to intercept the ship in Panamanian waters on Thursday as it moved toward the canal and take it to the Caribbean port of Manzanillo, Martinelli told private RPC radio station. The captain had a heart attack and also tried to commit suicide during the operation, Martinelli said.

Panamanian officials were finally able to board the ship to begin searching it Monday, pulling out hundreds of sacks of sugar.

Luis Eduardo Camacho, a spokesman for Martinelli, said authorities had only searched one of the ship's five container sections, and the inspection of all the cargo will take at least a week. Panama has requested help from United Nations inspectors, along with Colombia and the UK, said Javier Carballo, the country's top narcotics prosecutor.

"Panama being a neutral country, a country in peace, that doesn't like war, we feel very worried about this military material," Martinelli said.

North Korea's government made no public comment on the case.

In early July, a top North Korean general, Kim Kyok Sik, visited Cuba and met with his island counterparts. Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma said he was also received by President Raul Castro, and the two had an "exchange about the historical ties that unite the two nations and the common will to continue strengthening them."

The meetings were held behind closed doors, and there has been no detailed account of their discussions.

"After this incident there should be renewed focus on North Korean-Cuban links," said Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Griffiths said his institute told the U.N. this year that it had uncovered evidence of a flight from Cuba to North Korea that travelled via central Africa.

"Given the history of North Korea, Cuban military cooperation and now this latest seizure, we find this flight more interesting," he said. "

The Chong Chon Gang has a history of being detained on suspicion of trafficking drugs and ammunition, Griffiths said. Lloyd's List Intelligence said the 34-year-old ship, which is registered to the Pyongyang-based Chongchongang Shipping Company, "has a long history of detentions for safety deficiencies and other undeclared reasons."

Satellite tracking records show it left the Pacific Coast of Russia on April 12 with a stated destination of Havana, then crossed the Pacific and the Panama Canal on its way to the Caribbean. It disappeared from satellite tracking until it showed up again on the Caribbean side of the canal, on July 10, Lloyd's said.

The disappearance from satellite tracking indicates that the crew may have switched off a device that automatically transmits the ship's location after it moved into the Caribbean, Lloyd's said.

Mulino, the Panamanian public security minister, said the ship crossed the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean last month carrying a cargo of sheet metal that was inspected by Panamanian authorities.

Griffiths said the Chong Chon Gang was stopped in 2010 in the Ukraine and was attacked by pirates 400 miles off the coast of Somalia in 2009.

Griffiths' institute has also been interested in the ship because of a 2009 stop it made in Tartus — a Syrian port city hosting a Russian naval base.

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli posted this picture on his Twitter account Monday showing what he said officials believe is sophisticated missile equipment found in containers of sugar aboard a North Korean-flagged ship traveling from Cuba.

AP

click image to enlarge

Panamanian police officers patrol a deck aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. The North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is under a United Nations arms embargo, Panamanian officials said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

 


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