Panama brushed aside North Korea's demands that it release an impounded North Korean freighter and its 35-member crew, pressing criminal charges on Thursday against all aboard for endangering public security by attempting to transport a concealed cargo of Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal.
The charges against the crew members, lodged by the office of the prosecutor, Javier Caraballo, heightened the Panamanian confrontation with North Korea over the ship, the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang, which had been awaiting permission to cross the canal for the voyage home after a visit to Cuba.
The vessel was impounded on Sunday after the crew, armed with what officials called sticks, tried to fend off Panamanian marines investigating whether it was carrying contraband. They found old radar and missile components buried in the hold of the ship, underneath more than 200,000 bags of Cuban brown sugar.
A statement by the prosecutor's office said all the accused had exercised their right to remain silent when the charges were formally lodged. The crew was expected to remain in detention while the Panamanian authorities finished unloading the vessel, which could take days.
The criminal charges were announced only hours after North Korea broke its silence over the impounded ship and demanded that Panama let the vessel and crew depart. A statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry asserted that the ship had been transporting the Cuban weapons to North Korea for refurbishment under a legal contract. The North Korean statement also criticized Panama for using what it called the pretext of searching the vessel for narcotics and for Panama's violent treatment of the crew.
The seizing of the vessel has cast a light on the clandestine maritime trading practices of North Korea, one of the world's most isolated and impoverished countries, which has been further hobbled by United Nations sanctions over its nuclear weapons and proliferation activities.
"The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of 'drug investigation' and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug," the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. "Yet, they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kind of cargo aboard the ship."
The statement said "this cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them, according to a legitimate contract." It demanded that Panama "let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay."
The North Korean statement came a little more than a day after Cuba acknowledged it owned the weapons. In addition to the criminal charges against the crew, Panama has requested that the United Nations Security Council investigate the cargo as a violation of sanctions that prohibit North Korean trading in war matériel.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.