Panama Seizes North Korea-Flagged Ship for Weapons

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The Panamanian authorities have impounded a rusting North Korean freighter on a voyage from Cuba toward the Panama Canal and back to its home country, and said the ship was carrying missile system components cloaked in a cargo of sugar. The arms would appear to represent a significant violation of United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea.

President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama, who announced the seizure late Monday in a radio interview, posted a photograph in a Twitter message of what he described as "sophisticated missile equipment" found in the cargo hold of the vessel, the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang, a 36-year-old freighter that has rarely plied the waters of the Western Hemisphere.

Mr. Martinelli and other Panamanian officials said the vessel's 35 crew members were taken into custody after they violently resisted efforts to redirect the vessel to the Panamanian port of Manzanillo, at the Atlantic end of the canal, and that the captain tried to commit suicide after the ship was detained. The captain's condition was unclear.

The president said the ship would undergo a thorough inspection to look for any more contraband. "We're going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside," he said. "You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal."

José Raúl Mulino, Panama's minister of security, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that the suspect cargo had been found in two containers and that "evidently, they are armaments." Mr. Mulino said all 250,000 sugar sacks aboard would be removed before the ship could be completely investigated.

The crew members were detained and taken to a naval base after they disconnected crane cables aboard their ship, in what Mr. Mulino called an act of "rebellion and sabotage."

Mr. Martinelli said the ship had been stopped initially on suspicion of carrying narcotics. But it is unusual for Panama Canal authorities to detain or search any ship that is merely passing through the waterway and not stopping in Panama to load or unload cargo.

Mr. Mulino said ship searches were "not unusual when we have information produced from international cooperation we have with many countries." At the same time, Mr. Mulino said, a tip to search the North Korean vessel came from Panamanian intelligence. He declined to say whether other countries had provided information.

As of midday Tuesday there was no comment on the ship seizure by officials from either North Korea or Cuba. The two countries, known for their antipathy to the United States, have formed close bonds over the years, partly as a consequence of an American-led effort to ostracize them internationally, North Korea in particular.

The United Nations has imposed broad sanctions on North Korea that seek to curtail its ability to export and import weaponry, particularly missile components and technology. Earlier this month, the United States blacklisted a general in Myanmar, Thein Htay, for buying military goods from North Korea.

American officials say North Korea's arms trade has helped finance the country's nuclear and missile ambitions. In February, the North carried out its third nuclear test, a detonation that led to a tightened round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and supported by North Korea's longtime ally and benefactor, China.

The seizure comes as Panama and South Korea, the North's sworn enemy, have been strengthening ties and exploring a possible free trade agreement.

At the same time, North Korea and Cuba have been further strengthening ties as well. Two weeks ago the North Korean armed forces chief of staff, Kim Kyok-sik, visited Cuba and met with President Raul Castro, Cuban news media reported. Such a visit by a high-ranking North Korea official like Mr. Kim did not go unnoticed elsewhere.

"There are very few states where the North Korean chief of staff is welcomed for a high-level meeting," Hugh Griffiths, an international arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Griffiths said that against the context of Mr. Kim's visit to Cuba, a seizure of arms on a North Korean vessel that had recently departed from Cuba would not be entirely surprising.

Still, he said, it was unusual that this particular vessel was in the area. He said the ship's itinerary history showed that it had spent most of its working life in Asian and European waters, and the last known time it had been to Panama was in 2002.

"This vessel carried a very high level of risk, given the voyage anomalies," Mr. Griffiths said. "Because it had not sailed to the Western Hemisphere for more than 10 years -- not part of this ship's normal trading patterns."

He called it a "raggedy old ship with spotty records."

In an e-mailed statement, IHS Jane's Intelligence, the defense consulting firm, said it had identified the equipment shown in the images of the seized cargo as an SNR-75 "Fan Song" fire control radar for the SA-2 family of surface-to-air missiles.

"One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade," it said. "In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services."

But IHS Jane's added that the fire control radar equipment could also have been en route to North Korea to augment North Korea's air defense network, which it said was based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars.

After North Korea's nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests in recent years, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions to ban trade in big and unconventional weapons with North Korea and tighten restrictions aimed at denying financial services that could contribute to the country's missile and nuclear programs.

There have been occasional crackdowns involving illicit trafficking in arms and luxury goods. In August last year, Japan seized a cargo of aluminum alloys originating from North Korea, bound for Myanmar and suspected of being connected to a nuclear program, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported last November.

A shipment of missile-related items from North Korea and bound for Syria on board a Chinese-flagged ship was interdicted in the South Korean port of Pusan in May last year, the Kyodo News agency of Japan reported last November.

In May, the United States Justice Department announced the arrest of a Taiwanese father and son on charges of conspiring to send American-made machines that could be used in the production of weapons of mass destruction to Taiwan. Since the father had a history of working for North Korea, the Justice Department said, it believed the goods may have been sent onward to North Korea.

Despite the tightening of sanctions, North Korea was still believed to be able to exploit loopholes in their implementation. In a report in June last year, the United Nations sanctions committee said that North Korea had demonstrated "elaborate techniques" to evade the sanctions, though their tightening appeared to have slowed its illicit transactions and made them "significantly more difficult and expensive."

North Korea has increasingly resorted to cash-only transactions, using intermediaries and its own diplomats to hand-carry bulk cash, said South Korean officials familiar with the implementation of United Nations sanctions.

The United Nations resolution adopted in March, after the North's third nuclear test in February, extended sanctions to bulk cash couriers suspected of involvement in the country's illicit trade.

South Korean officials said the North also used bank accounts opened in borrowed names in countries like China to disburse funds to make the task of tracking them more difficult. The Bank of China shut the account of North Korea's state-run Foreign Trade Bank after the United Nations sanctions in March.

Rick Gladstone reported from New York, Gerry Mullany from Hong Kong and Choe Sang-hun from Seoul, South Korea. Reporting was contributed by Raphael Minder from Paris,  Anne-Sophie Bolon from London and Karla Zabludovsky from Mexico City.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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