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Panama Charges North Korean Ship's Crew

View of what seems to be weapon parts aboard a North Korean-flagged ship on Tuesday.
Rodrigo Arangua
AFP/Getty Images
View of what seems to be weapon parts aboard a North Korean-flagged ship on Tuesday.

The crew of a North Korean ship carrying a clandestine cargo of Cold War-era weapons from Cuba has been charged with endangering public security by Panamanian authorities, who seized the vessel earlier this week.

The North Korean vessel en route from Cuba was seized as it attempted to transit the Panama Canal.

According to the BBC:

"[Panamanian] Prosecutor Javier Caraballo accused the 35 crew members of endangering public security by illegally transporting war material.

"The charges came just hours after North Korea urged Panama to release the ship and its crew without delay.

"Police found the weapons under bags of sugar. Cuba has said it had sent the weapons to North Korea for repairs."

Reuters reported Wednesday that 33 of the 35 crew members had been charged with "crimes against Panama's internal security for trafficking undeclared arms."

Panama's security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, said the ship has broken Panamanian and international law.

"This is not an official or military ship belonging to the North Korean government," Mulino said.

Cuba has said the shipment of weapons, which includes MiG jets, missiles and radar systems, were being sent to North Korea for repair. They were concealed under thousands of bags of sugar.

NPR's Tom Gjelten says the United Nations must now determine whether the shipment breached the arms embargo imposed against Pyongyang for its failure to dismantle its nuclear program. Speaking to Morning Edition, Gjelten said:

"It is really up to the U.N. to determine whether this is a violation of the arms embargo. Some diplomats say that even if North Korea was only upgrading Cuba's weapons, it would still be a violation.

"Both North Korea and Cuba are in desperate situations. North Korea is looking for food, for hard currency, they are looking for any opportunity to do business with anyone willing to work with them. For the Cubans, the price was right — who else would take payment for a weapons repair in bags of sugar."

The ship in question, the Chong Chon Gang, has an interesting past, according to USA Today:

"It was stopped in 2010 by Ukraine authorities in the Black Sea for reasons that are unclear. It was attacked by pirates in the Arabian Sea in 2009. Two of its sailors were injured in the unsuccessful hijacking attempt, according to the Lloyd's List's vessel report.

"That year, the ship caught the attention of maritime officials when it made a stop at the Syrian port of Tartus, home to Russia's only overseas naval base, says Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the institute. Why it was there is not known.

"The Maritime Database shows the Chong Chon Gang has operated mostly in Asia with occasional trips to Kenya, United Arab Emirates, Brazil and Turkey. In previous years the ship's operator, technical manager and owner have all been listed as the North Korean state-run Chongchongang Shipping Co. Ltd, according to IHS Maritime Analyst Gary Li. It has also been to Iran, the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, according to Lloyd's List."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.