Archive for the ‘Illicit activities’ Category

Sony, “The Interview”, and new US sanctions

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

UPDATE 27 (2015-1-18): The New York Times is reporting that the NSA had broken into North Korea’s computer system before the North Koreans hacked Sony:

Spurred by growing concern about North Korea’s maturing capabilities, the American spy agency drilled into the Chinese networks that connect North Korea to the outside world, picked through connections in Malaysia favored by North Korean hackers and penetrated directly into the North with the help of South Korea and other American allies, according to former United States and foreign officials, computer experts later briefed on the operations and a newly disclosed N.S.A. document.

UPDATE 26 (2015-1-9): The NSA played a role in identifying the DPRK.

UPDATE 25 (2015-1-7): FBI reveals more details (New York Times):

The F.B.I.’s director, James B. Comey, said on Wednesday that the United States had concluded that North Korea was behind the destructive attacks on Sony Pictures partly because the hackers failed to mask their location when they broke into the company’s servers.

Mr. Comey said that instead of routing some of the attacks and messages through decoy servers, the hackers had sent them directly from known North Korean Internet addresses.

Though Mr. Comey did not offer more details about the government’s evidence in a speech in New York, senior government officials said that F.B.I.’s analysts discovered that the hackers made a critical error by logging into both their Facebook account and Sony’s servers from North Korean Internet addresses. It was clear, the officials said, that hackers quickly recognized their mistake. In several cases, after mistakenly logging in directly, they quickly backtracked and rerouted their attacks and messages through decoy computers abroad.

UPDATE 24 (2105-1-5): The DPRK criticized the latest round of unilateral sanctions imposed by the US. According to the New York Times:

North Korea denounced the United States on Sunday for imposing new sanctions on it after a cyberattack on Sony Pictures, calling them byproducts of American “hostility” toward the North.

North Korea reiterated its denial of involvement in the hacking of Sony computers and said Washington’s sanctions would only strengthen resolve to pursue its “military first” policy. That policy calls for an arms buildup, including nuclear weapons development, as a “deterrent” against Washington’s policy.

“The persistent and unilateral action taken by the White House to slap sanctions against the D.P.R.K. patently proves that it is still not away from inveterate repugnance and hostility toward the D.P.R.K.,” an unidentified government spokesman was quoted as saying by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. D.P.R.K. stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

The statement from the spokesman was the North’s first reaction to the new sanctions the Obama administration announced on Friday.

UPDATE 23 (2015-1-2): US sanctions Pyongyang over Sony hack. According to the AP:

President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Friday authorizing the sanctions. Although the U.S. has already sanctioned North Korea over its nuclear program, these are the first sanctions punishing Pyongyang for alleged cyberattacks.

The Obama administration says the sanctions affect three North Korean entities, including a government intelligence agency and a North Korean arms dealer. The U.S. is also sanctioning 10 individuals who work for those entities or the North Korean government.

Those sanctioned are barred from using the U.S. financial system, and Americans are prohibited from doing business with them.

The updates to the treasury department’s list of sanctioned entities and individuals can be found here.

Here is the press release from the treasury department.

Here is additional coverage: Reuters, New York Times, Vox.com.

UPDATE 22 (2014-12-31): FBI still maintains DPRK is behind the attack.

UPDATE 21 (2014-12-25): Lizard Squad takes credit for DDoS attack on Xbox live. Also, I have had trouble accessing North Korean web pages this evening (11:20pm).

UPDATE 20 (2014-12-24): Meet the hacker group, Lizard Squad. Also, here is another story in the New York Times which casts doubt on the theory that the hack originated in the DPRK.

UPDATE 19 (2014-12-24): Via @levie on Tiwtter:

“A country with no internet is now essentially responsible for causing Hollywood to adapt its business model to the Internet. This is weird.

UPDATE 18 (2014-12-24): Martyn Williams reports that “The Interview” will be available on line. More at CNN and Washington Post.

UPDATE 17 (2014-12-23): Sony has authorized a limited release of “The Interview”  on Christmas Day. According to the Associated Press:

“The Interview” was put back into theaters Thursday when Sony Pictures Entertainment announced a limited theatrical release for the comedy that provoked an international incident with North Korea and outrage over its cancelled release.

Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton said Tuesday that Seth Rogen’s North Korea farce “will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day.” He said Sony also is continuing its efforts to release the film on more platforms and in more theaters.

“We have never given up on releasing ‘The Interview,'” Lynton said in a statement Tuesday. “While we hope this is only the first step of the film’s release, we are proud to make it available to the public and to have stood up to those who attempted to suppress free speech.”

For Sony, the decision was the culmination of a gradual about-face: After initially saying it had no plans to release the movie, the company began softening its position after it was broadly criticized.

Moviegoers celebrated the abrupt change in fortune for a film that appeared doomed as “The Interview” began popping up in the listings of independent theaters across the country Tuesday, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. The film stands to open in as many as a few hundred theaters on Thursday, the day it was originally set for wide release.

One of the loudest critics of the film’s shelving — President Barack Obama — hailed Sony’s reversal.

“The president applauds Sony’s decision to authorize screenings of the film,” said Obama spokesman Eric Schultz. “As the president made clear, we are a country that believes in free speech, and the right of artistic expression. The decision made by Sony and participating theaters allows people to make their own choices about the film, and we welcome that outcome.”

Rogen, who stars in the film he co-directed with Evan Goldberg, made his first public comments in a surreal ordeal that began with hackers leaking Sony executives’ emails and culminated in an ongoing confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea. The FBI has said North Korea was behind the hacking attacks.

“The people have spoken! Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn’t give up!” said Rogen on Twitter.

“VICTORY!!!!!!!” said James Franco, who co-stars in the film. “The PEOPLE and THE PRESIDENT have spoken.”

The film will be showing at the Alamo Draft House (where Team America was yanked).

UPDATE 16 (2014-12-23): In Update 11 I noted that the US has asked for Chinese support. Apparently China is cool to the idea. According to the Washington Post:

China said Tuesday there was no proof that North Korea was behind a cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, signaling its reluctance to side with the United States over the incident, while also rejecting speculation it could have cut off Pyongyang’s Internet access as punishment.

Asked about American requests for help from China to punish North Korea for cyberattacks, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, said the United States and North Korea needed to communicate directly.

She said Beijing had not seen proof of who was behind the attack on Sony. “We need sufficient evidence before drawing any conclusion,” she said at a news conference.

Administration officials had asked China last Thursday to block Pyongyang’s access to Internet routers and servers based in China, to expel North Korean hackers living in China and to pressure the regime of Kim Jong Un to end its alleged cyberoffensive against companies in the United States, according to one official.

Read the full story here.

UPDATE 15 (2014-12-22): This morning I was having trouble loading some North Korean web pages. Looks like others were as well: Martyn Williams, Bloomberg, Vox, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post.

UPDATE 14 (2014-12-22): Martyn Williams has some more information here.

UPDATE 13 (2014-12-21): KCNA has published a second statement on the Sony hacking–this time from the National Defense Commission (the initial statement was from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs):

U.S. Urged to Honestly Apologize to Mankind for Its Evil Doing before Groundlessly Pulling up Others

Pyongyang, December 21 (KCNA) — The Policy Department of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK issued the following statement Sunday:

Strange thing that happened in the heart of the U.S., the ill-famed cesspool of injustice, is now afloat in the world as shocking news.

The Sony Pictures Entertainment, the biggest movie producer in the U.S., which produced the undesirable reactionary film “The Interview” daring hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and agitating even terrorism and had a plan to distribute it, was exposed to surprisingly sophisticated, destructive and threatening cyber warfare and has been thrown into a bottomless quagmire after suffering property losses worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The public in the U.S. is now describing this case as “disgrace suffered by Sony Pictures Entertainment,” “very sorry thing caused by the U.S.,” “Sony Pictures Entertainment showing a white flag before hackers” and the “unprecedented disaster suffered by the U.S.”

Those who meted out a stern punishment of justice were reported to be cyber experts styling themselves “guardians of peace”.

Seized with terrible horror and threat in face of their merciless hacking attack in retaliation against unjust actions, many movie and drama distributors in North America including 41 states of the U.S. and Canada immediately canceled the screening of the reactionary movie. And it was reported that the Sony Pictures Entertainment which directly sponsored its production and distribution hastily issued a statement on Dec. 25 that it would suspend the screening of the undesirable movie which had been planned in 63 countries.

The NDC of the DPRK highly estimates the righteous action taken by the “guardians of peace,” though it is not aware of their residence.

It, at the same time, considers as fortunate the step taken by the Sony Pictures Entertainment to give up the overall distribution of the above-said movie due to the decision and strong pressure of the movie and drama distributors for stopping the screening of the reactionary movie, though belatedly.

This is an official stand of the army and the people of the DPRK on what happened in the heart of the U.S.

This stand is taken by the DPRK because the movie “The Interview” is an undesirable and reactionary one justifying and inciting terrorism which should not be allowed in any country and any region.

Another reason is that the movie is run through with a story agitating a vicious and dastardly method of assassinating a head of a legitimate sovereign state.

No wonder, even political and social circles of the U.S. commented that it is quite wrong to defame the head of the state for the mere reason that his politics is different from that of the U.S. and it is in the hostile relationship with the latter and, therefore, the Sony Pictures Entertainment got into a serious trouble and paid a due price.

For these reasons, the DPRK is more highly praising the “guardians of peace” for their righteous deed which prevented in advance the evil cycle of retaliation– terrorism sparks terrorism.

It is quite natural that the movie and drama producers should refrain from undesirable deeds contrary to the noble mission to lead morality and civilization.

But what matters is that the U.S. and its followers are groundlessly trumpeting that the recent cyber attack was made by the DPRK.

The FBI issued the results of the investigation into the hack at the Sony Pictures Entertainment on December 19.

According to them, it suffered tremendous losses.

One may say this is the due price incurred by wrong deed, the evil act of hurting others.

The U.S. released a statement asserting that this loss was caused by the DPRK.

No matter how big and disgraceful the loss may be, the U.S. should not pull up others for no reason.

The FBI presented a report on the results of technical analysis of hacking program used by the “guardians of peace” for this attack, citing it as the ground that the serious hacking was caused by the DPRK.

The report says the malignant code had access to north Korea’s IP already known several times and the hacking methods applied in the “March 20 hacking case” and during cyber warfare against media and various other computer networks in south Korea in recent years are similar to that applied against the Sony Pictures Entertainment this time, being another ground that “this was done by the north”.

The report, in particular, adds that the malignant code and algorithm applied during the attack are similar to what was used during the hacking attack on south Korea, citing it as a proof.

Not satisfied with those groundless “evidence”, the FBI is letting loose ambiguous remarks that it is hard to fully prove due to the “protection of sensitive information sources.”

This means self-acknowledgement that the “assertion about the north’s deed” came from an intentional allegation rather than scientific evidence.

It is a common sense that the method of cyber warfare is almost similar worldwide. Different sorts of hacking programs and codes are used in cyberspace.

If somebody used U.S.-made hacking programs and codes and applied their instruction or encoding method, perhaps, the “wise” FBI, too, could not but admit that it would be hard to decisively assert that the attack was done by the U.S.

Moreover, the DPRK has never attempted nor made a “cyber-attack” on south Korea. The rumor about “cyber-attack” by the DPRK was a concoction made by the south Korean puppet regime and its plot.

After all, the grounds cited by the FBI in its announcement were all based on obscure sci-tech data and false story and, accordingly, the announcement itself is another fabrication. This is the DPRK’s stand on the U.S. gangster-like behavior against it.

What is grave is that U.S. President Obama is recklessly making the rumor about “DPRK’s cyber-attack on Sony Pictures” a fait accompli while crying out for symmetric counteraction, strict calculation and additionally retaliatory sanctions.

This is like beating air after being hit hard. A saying goes every sin brings its punishment with it. It is best for the guilty to repent of its evil doings and draw a lesson when forced to pay dearly for them.

The DPRK has clear evidence that the U.S. administration was deeply involved in the making of such dishonest reactionary movie.

It is said that the movie was conceived and produced according to the “guidelines” of the U.S. authorities who contended that such movies hurting the dignity of the DPRK supreme leadership and inciting terrorism against it would be used in an effective way as “propaganda against north Korea”.

The U.S. Department of State’s special human rights envoy went the lengths of urging the movie makers to keep all scenes insulting the dignity of the DPRK supreme leadership in the movie, saying it is needed to “vex the north Korean government”.

The facts glaringly show that the U.S. is the chief culprit of terrorism as it has loudly called for combating terrorism everywhere in the world but schemed behind the scene to produce and distribute movies inciting it in various countries of the world.

It is not exaggeration to say in the light of the prevailing situation that the U.S. administration and President Obama looking after the overall state affairs of the U.S. have been behind the case.

Can he really cover up the crimes he has committed by trying so hard to falsify the truth and turn white to black.

So we watched with unusual attention what had been done by the “guardians of peace” to avert terrorism and defend justice.

Yet, we do not know who or where they are but we can surely say that they are supporters and sympathizers with the DPRK.

The army and people of the DPRK who aspire after justice and truth and value conscience have hundreds of millions of supporters and sympathizers, known or unknown, who have turned out in the sacred war against terrorism and the U.S. imperialists, the chieftain of aggression, to accomplish the just cause.

Obama personally declared in public the “symmetric counteraction”, a disgraceful behavior.

There is no need to guess what kind of thing the “symmetric counteraction” is like but the army and people of the DPRK will never be browbeaten by such a thing.

The DPRK has already launched the toughest counteraction. Nothing is more serious miscalculation than guessing that just a single movie production company is the target of this counteraction. Our target is all the citadels of the U.S. imperialists who earned the bitterest grudge of all Koreans.

The army and people of the DPRK are fully ready to stand in confrontation with the U.S. in all war spaces including cyber warfare space to blow up those citadels.

Our toughest counteraction will be boldly taken against the White House, the Pentagon and the whole U.S. mainland, the cesspool of terrorism, by far surpassing the “symmetric counteraction” declared by Obama.

This is the invariable toughest stand of the army and people of the DPRK.

Fighters for justice including “guardians of peace” who turned out in the sacred drive for cooperation in the fight against the U.S. to defend human justice and conscience and to dismember the U.S. imperialists, the root cause of all sorts of evils and kingpin of injustice, are sharpening bayonets not only in the U.S. mainland but in all other parts of the world.

The just struggle to be waged by them across the world will bring achievements thousands of times greater than the hacking attack on the Sony Pictures Entertainment.

It is the truth and inevitability of the historical development that justice prevails over injustice.

Whoever challenges justice by toeing the line of the biggest criminal U.S. will never be able to escape merciless punishment as it is the target of the sacred drive for cooperation in the fight against the U.S.

The U.S. should reflect on its evil doings that put itself in such a trouble, apologize to the Koreans and other people of the world and should not dare pull up others.

UPDATE 12 (2014-12-21): Obama states he will consider adding the DPRK back to the list of state sponsors of terror. According to the New York Times:

As the United States moves closer to taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, President Obama said he would “review” whether to return North Korea to the list, part of a broader government response to a damaging cyberattack on Sony’s Hollywood studio.

“We have got very clear criteria as to what it means for a state to sponsor terrorism, and we don’t make those judgments just based on the news of the day,” Mr. Obama told CNN in an interview broadcast Sunday. “We look systematically at what’s been done.”

North Korea was removed from the list six years ago, but the government has again prompted the ire of the United States after the F.B.I. said it had extensive evidence that linked the North Korean government to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures.

UPDATE 11 (2014-12-21): Media reports indicate the US will seek Chinese support to resolve North Korean hacks. According to the New York Times:

The Obama administration has sought China’s help in recent days in blocking North Korea’s ability to launch cyberattacks, the first steps toward the “proportional response” President Obama vowed to make the North pay for the assault on Sony Pictures — and as part of a campaign to issue a broader warning against future hacking, according to senior administration officials.

“What we are looking for is a blocking action, something that would cripple their efforts to carry out attacks,” one official said.

So far, the Chinese have not responded. Their cooperation would be critical, since virtually all of North Korea’s telecommunications run through Chinese-operated networks.

It is unclear that China would choose to help, given tensions over computer security between Washington and Beijing since the Justice Department in May indicted five hackers working for the Chinese military on charges of stealing sensitive information from American companies.

The secret approach to China comes as American officials, convening a half-dozen meetings in the White House Situation Room last week, including one of the top national security team on Thursday night, have been developing options to give to the president during his vacation in Hawaii. They include new economic sanctions, mirroring those recently placed on Russian oligarchs and officials close to President Vladimir V. Putin, which would cut off their access to cash — the one perk that allows the elite surrounding Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to live lifestyles their starving countrymen can barely imagine.

The sessions also included discussions of “information operations” directed at the North Korean people, officials said, but similar efforts by South Korea to sway opinion in the North have often created a furious backlash.

This was also covered by the Wall Street Journal.

Although China has made no public response to the request, a separate report in the New York Times indicates that frustration with the DPRK among China’s leadership is as an all time high.

UPDATE 10 (2014-12-20): The DPRK denies involvement and makes an offer:

DPRK Foreign Ministry Rejects U.S. Accusation against Pyongyang over Cyber Attack

Pyongyang, December 20 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of the DPRK gave the following answer to a question put by KCNA Saturday as regards the U.S. accusation against the DPRK over a cyber attack on a movie company in the U.S.:

Obama, Kerry and other high-ranking authorities of the U.S. cried out for sort of counter-measure Friday, claiming that the results of the investigation into the cyber-attack on the Sony Pictures Entertainment proved that the DPRK was behind it.

They, without presenting any specific evidence, are asserting they can not open it to public as it is “sensitive information.”

Clear evidence is needed to charge a sovereign state with a crime.

Reference to the past cyber-attacks quite irrelevant with the DPRK and a string of presumptive assertions such as “similarity” and “repetition” can convince no one.

The U.S. act of daring charge the DPRK with a crime based on absurd “investigation results” reveals its inveterate bitterness toward the DPRK.

This is proven, as in the recent cyber-attack, by the recent urge made by a man called a “human rights special envoy” of the U.S. State Department to movie-makers that they should harass the north Korean government and keep alive scenes hurting the dignity of the its supreme leadership.

The U.S. ruling quarters are working hard to divert the criticism of its administration to the DPRK as the plan of putting on show the anti-DPRK film on Christmas Day canceled due to the controversial cyber-attack, causing an uproar in the U.S.

We will never pardon those undesirable elements keen on hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK. In case we retaliate against them, we will target with legitimacy those responsible for the anti-DPRK acts and their bases, not engaging in terrorist attack aimed at the innocent audience in cinemas.

The army of the DPRK has the will and ability to do so.

The U.S. State Secretary is going to justify the production of the movie hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of a sovereign state while trumpeting about the freedom of expression. He should know that there is punishment of libel in enforcement of international law.

We propose the U.S. side conducting a joint investigation into the case, given that Washington is slandering Pyongyang by spreading unfounded rumor.

We have a way to prove that we have nothing to do with the case without resorting to torture as what the CIA does.

The U.S. should bear in mind that it will face serious consequences in case it rejects our proposal for joint investigation and presses for what it called countermeasure while finding fault with the DPRK.

UPDATE 9 (2014-12-19): Some technology writers still believe the the DPRK was not behind the attack. And here. And here.

UPDATE 8 (2014-12-19): US Department of State on the hacking.

UPDATE 7 (2014-12-19): President Obama makes remarks on the hackingMore politics here.

UPDATE 6 (2014-12-19): There is the official FBI press release on the matter.

UPDATE 5 (2014-12-19): The New York Times has published information from the FBI that implicates the DPRK in the Sony hack:

The F.B.I. on Friday said it had extensive evidence that the North Korean government organized the cyberattack that debilitated Sony Pictures computers, marking the first time the United States has explicitly accused the leaders of a foreign nation of hacking American targets.

The bureau said that there were significant “similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks” to previous attacks by the North Koreans. It also said that there were classified elements of the evidence against the North that it could not reveal.

“The F.B.I. also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyberactivity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea,” the bureau said. “For example, the F.B.I. discovered that several Internet protocol addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with I.P. addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.”

The F.B.I. said that some of the methods employed in the Sony attack were similar to ones that were used by the North Koreans against South Korean banks and news media outlets in 2013.

“We are deeply concerned about the destructive nature of this attack on a private sector entity and the ordinary citizens who worked there,” the F.B.I. said.

It added: “Though the F.B.I. has seen a wide variety and increasing number of cyberintrusions, the destructive nature of this attack, coupled with its coercive nature, sets it apart. North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a U.S. business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves. Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior.”

North Korea has been under extraordinary economic sanctions for decades, and it has done nothing to curb either its nuclear program or these cyberattacks. A military response seems unlikely — the White House said on Thursday that it was examining options for a “proportional response,” and that would seem to rule out conventional military options.

Some of the evidence has been developed from “implants” that the National Security Agency has placed in networks around the world. But North Korea has proved to be a particularly hard target, because it has relatively low Internet connectivity to the rest of the world, and its best computer minds do not move out of the country often, where their machines and USB drives could be accessible targets.

“Suffice it to say,” one senior intelligence official said this week, “that we almost never name a suspect country. So when we do, it’s got to be based on something fairly strong.”

As the F.B.I. pointed out, the attacks at Sony share similarities with a similar series of destructive attacks last year on South Korean banks and broadcasters, and they used the same data-wiping tool that Iranian hackers used to destroy data on 30,000 computers at Saudi Aramco in 2012, according to forensics researchers.

In 2009, a similar campaign of coordinated cyberattacks over the Fourth of July holiday hit 27 American and South Korean websites, including those of South Korea’s presidential palace, called the Blue House, and its Defense Ministry, and sites belonging to the United States Treasury Department, the Secret Service and the Federal Trade Commission. North Korea was suspected, but a clear link was never established.

But those were all “distributed denial of service” attacks, in which attackers flood the sites with traffic until they fall offline. The Sony attack was far more sophisticated: It wiped data off Sony’s computer systems, rendering them inoperable.

“The cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment was not just an attack against a company and its employees,” Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement. “It was also an attack on our freedom of expression and way of life.”

Mr. Johnson said the attacks underscored the importance of taking measures “to rapidly detect cyberintrusions and promote resilience throughout all of our networks.”

“Every C.E.O. should take this opportunity to assess their company’s cybersecurity,” he added.

UPDATE 4 (2014-12-18): Paramount has chickened out and will not let any theater show “Team America” right now…See here and here.

UPDATE 3 (2014-12-18): Christmas day screening of Team America at the Alamo Draft House is already sold out.

UPDATE 2 (2014-12-18): Maybe time for a Team America sequel?

UPDATE 1 (2014-12-18): Team America to the rescue! At least one American theatre will stick up for the first amendment. And let’s be honest, it is probably a much better movie.

Oh, and this.

ORIGINAL POST (2014-12-17): Today Sony Pictures announced it was canceling the opening of the film The Interview. According to NBC:

Sony is dropping its planned Dec. 25 release of “‘The Interview,” the comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The decision comes after some of the nation’s largest movie theater chains, including Regal, Cinemark, Carmike and Cineplex, said they were holding back or dropping “The Interview” from screens in the aftermath of a hack that has ballooned from embarrassing disclosures for Sony Pictures executives to involve threats against theaters screening the film.

“Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business,” Sony said in a statement Wednesday, saying that it reached the decision after the top cinema chains pulled out.

“Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale — all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” the company said.

At the same time, another North Korea themed film was also put on hold.

This seemed like a massive over-reaction in my opinion until a few minutes later when this story was published by the New York Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy, which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

You can read the remainder of the article here.

Share

Recent CRS reports on the DPRK

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

The Congressional Research Service “recently” published two reports which relate to the DPRK:

The U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA): Provisions and Implementation
September 16, 2014: 2014-9-16-KORUS-Kaesong
June 2, 2011: Imports-from-North-Korea-2011

(Although this report focuses mostly on US-ROK issues, there is detailed discussion of the complex negotiations around the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).)

Iran-North Korea-Syria Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Cooperation 
April 16, 2014: 2014-4-16-Iran-Syria-Missile

You can download most former CRS reports dealing with the DPRK here.

 

Share

US federal court rules against DPRK

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

In July 2014 a US federal court found the DPRK guilty of proliferating weapons and providing training to Hezbollah.

Here is the ruling (PDF).

 

Share

North Koreans attend Russian arms expo

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

According to Yonhap:

North Korea sent a delegation to a Russian arms exposition last week, a news report said Tuesday, in an apparent sign of Pyongyang’s continuing interest in trading arms despite U.N. sanctions.

North Korean government officials attended this year’s Oboronexpo held in Zhukovsky, near Moscow, from Aug. 13-17, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported, quoting the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

The annual arms show puts missile systems, tanks, artillery, and other advanced weapons and relevant technologies on display.

More than 300 defense firms from 11 nations took part in the event.

The RFA, a Washington-based network, said it is possible that the North’s participation was aimed at purchasing weapons.

It has not confirmed whether Pyongyang signed any contracts during the expo, however.

The isolated nation is prohibited from weapons trading under U.N. sanctions imposed in response to long-range rocket and nuclear tests.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea joins Russian arms expo despite sanctions
Yonhap
2014-8-19

Share

Loopholes in UN sanctions against North Korea

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

A new article in 38 North by Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody.

Here is the introduction:

The latest United Nations report on North Korean sanctions has once again highlighted the role of foreign companies in cases of UN sanctions evasion. TheMarch 2014 report by the independent Panel of Experts assigned to monitor sanctions against the DPRK on behalf of the UN noted the widespread involvement of foreign companies.

A new SIPRI study backs up the UN report and goes further, showing that foreign company involvement in North Korean sanctions violations is not new and is more than just a trend-foreign companies and individuals travelling on foreign passports constitute an overwhelming majority of those identified as involved in the violation of both multilateral and unilateral sanctions dating as far back as 2004.While the majority of companies and individuals identified as involved in sanctions violations are either registered abroad or hold foreign passports, the international community continues to overwhelmingly target companies and individuals registered in North Korea. This targeting takes the form of “designations” by which the United Nations and the European Union together with countries such as Australia, Japan and the US order asset freezes on particular companies, as well as trade bans, and slap travel bans on named individuals traveling on North Korean passports.

These dynamics–identified for the first time in the SIPRI study–may have implications for policy-makers seeking to apply new rounds of sanctions on North Korea in response to any fourth nuclear test.

Most firms designated by the UN and the EU as well as Australia, Japan and the United States are North Korean-registered trading companies while virtually no North Korean transportation companies have been designated. In conREAD MOREtrast to trading companies which have few fixed assets and can easily switch name and other forms of corporate identity, transportation companies that utilize aircraft and ships are easier to monitor and track despite name-changes. Given the key role that transportation plays in the logistics of sanctions evasion, the SIPRI study provides a number of recommendations in support of these and other findings….

Share

US OFAC expands sanctions list

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

According to the Daily NK:

It is believed that representatives from Excellence Mineral Manufacturing Co., Ltd and Soe Min Htaeik Co. recently met with North Korean authorities to facilitate the import of military supplies for use in North Korea’s state-run weapons program.
A third company, Asia Metal Company Limited, is thought to have constructed factory facilities for use by the Myanmar Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI).  It is estimated that around thirty North Korean nationals are currently employed on the site.
Lt. Col. Kyaw Nyunt Oo of the DDI was the only individual added to the list.

Information on OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN) can be found here.

Here is a link to the SDN List Sorted by OFAC Sanctions Program (Search for DPRK)

Here is a link to the SDN List Sorted by Country (Search for Korea, North)

Read the full story here:
NK Weapons Suppliers Added to Sanctions List
Daily NK
Jin Dong Hyeok
2013-12-19

Share

North Korean meth ring uncovered

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

UPDATE 3 (2013-11-24): NPR offers more details:

In Pyongyang, a spokesman for North Korean’s foreign ministry responded last week with a sharply worded statement saying the country strictly forbids drug manufacturing drug smuggling. It called the case “another politically motivated puerile charade” spread by “the Western reptile media.”

Read the full story here.

UPDATE 2 (2013-11-21): Yonhap reports the men plead not-guilty. According to the article:

The five men all entered not-guilty pleas in federal court in Manhattan Wednesday [2013-11-20]. If convicted, they face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in jail and the possibility of life in prison.

UPDATE 1 (2013-11-20): The New York Times offers additional details:

Five men have been charged with conspiracy to import 100 kilograms of nearly pure North Korean-produced methamphetamine into the United States, and federal officials said the case illustrates the emergence of North Korea as a player in the global drug trade.

The men were part of a sprawling international drug trafficking ring led by a former American soldier, Joseph Manuel Hunter, who has separately been charged with conspiring to murder a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and with importing cocaine into the United States, federal officials said.

“These guys worked for and with Joseph Hunter in a transnational criminal organization that involved drugs, weapons, chemicals, murder and a close involvement with rogue nations,” said a senior federal law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

The five men — including British, Chinese and Philippine nationals — were arrested in Phuket, Thailand, in September and were extradited to the United States on Tuesday night. They appeared in federal court in New York on Wednesday.

In January, the group agreed to provide 100 kilos of meth to a man they thought was a narcotics trafficker but was, in fact, a confidential source who was working with the DEA.

One of the defendants, Ye Tiong Tan Lim, 53, from China, bragged that his Hong Kong-based criminal group was the only organization that was able to produce meth in North Korea because of a crackdown there on the drug trade, according to a criminal indictment filed in federal court.

Lim told the DEA source that the North Korean government “already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed. . . . To show Americans that they are not selling it anymore, they burned it,” Lim said.

The meth was first sent to the Philippines, and the men agreed to deliver the narcotics in Thailand, where they were told it would be shipped to the United States by boat.

One of the defendants said that his organization had stockpiled one ton of North Korean methamphetamine in the Philippines because “we already anticipated this thing would happen. . . . [whereby] we cannot bring out our goods right now.”

The group arranged for a “dry run” and sent a shipping container of tea leaves from the Philippines to Thailand to test the delivery channel that would later be used to ship the meth.

The drugs were later seized by law enforcement officials in Thailand and in the Philippines. The North Korean meth tested at more than 99 percent pure, DEA officials said.

“Like many international criminal networks, these drug traffickers have no respect for borders and no regard for either the rule of law or who they harm as a result of their criminal endeavors,” DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said.

The five men could face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and the possibility of life in prison.

“Methamphetamine is a dangerous, potentially deadly drug, whatever its origin,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “If it ends up in our neighborhoods, the threat it poses to public health is grave whether it is produced in New York, elsewhere in the U.S., or in North Korea.”

Hunter, 48, the alleged leader of the ring, was arrested in September in Thailand and sent to the United States.

Nicknamed “Rambo,” Hunter had served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. When he left the service in 2004, he began a new life as a contract killer, according to senior law enforcement officials. In May, Hunter and two other former U.S. soldiers allegedly planned to kill a DEA agent and one of the agency’s informants for $800,000.

“My guys will handle it,” Hunter wrote in a May 30 e-mail when asked if he could execute the killings, according to an indictment. The drug traffickers who said they wanted to hire Hunter were part of an undercover sting operation.

Four other men have been arrested in the case, including another former U.S. Army sergeant, as well as German and Polish nationals.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-11-20): According to CNN:

U.S. drug agents in Thailand took custody of five men wanted in the United States on allegations of being part of a drug ring that sought to traffic in North Korean methamphetamine and other drugs, CNN has learned.

The men, who have British, Filipino, Taiwanese and Slovak citizenship, were being flown to New York to face charges, according to a source.

Thai authorities announced the arrests after the men were turned over to U.S. authorities. A U.S. law enforcement official said the charges would be made public soon.

The men are part of a broader investigation that federal prosecutors made public in September, filing charges against a group of former U.S. and European ex-military men in a murder-for-hire and drug-importation plot.

The Drug Enforcement Administration concocted a sting operation and arrested Joseph Hunter, a former U.S. Army sniper trainer nicknamed Rambo, and four others in the sting case.

The five more recently arrested were expelled by Thai authorities and put on a DEA plane to New York.

Additional details of the charges couldn’t be learned because they remain under seal.

Drug trafficking from North Korea has occurred for decades with at least 50 documented incidents. In previous years, North Korea had been linked to shipments of heroin and methamphetamine, according to the CIA World Factbook.

In 2003, a North Korean ship, Pong Su which was carrying nearly 300 pounds of heroin, was seized along the eastern coast of Australia after a four-day chase.

There isn’t enough information to determine whether the North Korean government is currently involved in drug trafficking, according to the 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the U.S. State Department

“There have been no confirmed reports of large-scale drug trafficking involving DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) state entities since 2004,” it stated. “This suggests that state-sponsored drug trafficking may have ceased or been sharply reduced, or that the DPRK regime has become more adept at concealing state-sponsored trafficking of illicit drugs.”

Information on the case against Joseph Hunter can be found here and here.

Read the full story here:
5 men extradited to U.S. in North Korean meth case
CNN
Evan Perez
2013-11-20

Share

Taiwanese man pleads guilty over DPRK weapons shipments

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

UPDATE 2 (2014-12-17): Gary Tsai has pleaded guilty. According to the Chicago Tribune:

A Glenview man accused of teaming up with his Taiwanese dad to evade a U.S. ban on selling weapon-making equipment to North Korea pleaded guilty Dec. 16 to a lesser charge of lying on export documents.

Gary Tsai, 37, was accused of exporting machinery with his dad, Alex Tsai, that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction.

On Dec. 16, he agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors under which he admitted lying on shipping documents about who would receive an industrial grinder he was selling. In return, any sentence he receives at a sentencing hearing in March will be capped at five years in prison.

His frail father pleaded guilty in October and had agreed to testify against him if he insisted on going to trial. Alex Tsai also faces a maximum of five years.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security say the Tsais were part of a web of people who export metal-fabrication machinery — using companies with different names — that could be used to create WMDs.

Alex Tsai was previously indicted in 2008 by Taiwanese prosecutors for forging invoices and shipping restricted materials to North Korea, according to federal records.

In 2009, the Treasury Department identified him as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and prohibited anyone from doing business with him or his two Taiwanese companies.

UPDATE 1 (2014-10-9): Hsien Tai Tsai to plead guilty. According to Fox News:

Taiwanese man accused of trying to bypass bans on supplying weapons machinery to North Korea is expected to change his plea to guilty.

A court document says Hsien Tai Tsai (SEHN’ SUHN’ SEYE’) will attend a change-of-plea hearing Thursday in federal court in Chicago.

The 68-year-old man has been charged with conspiring to thwart laws on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It’s unclear what counts Tsai will plead guilty to.

He was arrested while visiting Estonia. The Baltic Sea-coast nation worked with the U.S. to capture him, then jailed him for five months. Estonia extradited Tsai a year ago.

Tsai’s son was arrested in the Chicago area last year on similar charges.

Defense attorney Steven Shobat didn’t immediately respond to a message left Wednesday seeking comment.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-5-6): Here is a summary provided by ISIS.

Here is a statement taken from the FBI web page:

Taiwanese Father and Son Arrested for Allegedly Violating U.S. Laws to Prevent Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction

U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Illinois
May 06, 2013
(312) 353-5300

CHICAGO—A resident of Taiwan whom the U.S. government has linked to the supply of weapons machinery to North Korea, and his son, who resides in suburban Chicago, are facing federal charges here for allegedly conspiring to violate U.S. laws designed to thwart the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, federal law enforcement officials announced today.

Hsien Tai Tsai, also known as “Alex Tsai,” who is believed to reside in Taiwan, was arrested last Wednesday in Tallinn, Estonia, while his son, Yueh-Hsun Tsai, also known as “Gary Tsai,” who is from Taiwan and is a legal permanent resident in the United States, was arrested the same day at his home in Glenview, Illinios.

Gary Tsai, 36, was ordered held in custody pending a detention hearing at 1:30 p.m. today before Magistrate Judge Susan Cox in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Alex Tsai, 67, remains in custody in Estonia pending proceedings to extradite him to the United States.

Both men were charged in federal court in Chicago with three identical offenses in separate complaints that were filed previously and unsealed following their arrests. Each was charged with one count of conspiring to defraud the United States in its enforcement of laws and regulations prohibiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, one count of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by conspiring to evade the restrictions imposed on Alex Tsai and two of his companies by the U.S. Treasury Department, and one count of money laundering.

The arrests and charges were announced by Gary S. Shapiro, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; Cory B. Nelson, Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Office of the FBI; Gary Hartwig, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Chicago; and Ronald B. Orzel, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement, Chicago Field Office. The Justice Department’s National Security Division and Office of International Affairs assisted with the investigation. U.S. officials thanked the Estonian Internal Security Service and the Estonian Prosecutor’s Office for their cooperation.

According to both complaint affidavits, agents have been investigating Alex and Gary Tsai, as well as Individual A (a Taiwanese associate of Alex Tsai) and a network of companies engaged in the export of U.S. origin goods and machinery that could be used to produce weapons of mass destruction. The investigation has revealed that Alex and Gary Tsai and Individual A are associated with at least three companies based in Taiwan—Global Interface Company Inc., Trans Merits Co. Ltd., and Trans Multi Mechanics Co. Ltd.—that have purchased and then exported, and attempted to purchase and then export, from the United States machinery used to fabricate metals and other materials with a high degree of precision.

On January 16, 2009, under Executive Order 13382, which sanctions proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Alex Tsai, Global Interface, and Trans Merits as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, isolating them from the U.S. financial and commercial systems and prohibiting any person or company in the United States from knowingly engaging in any transaction or dealing with Alex Tsai and the two Taiwanese companies.

In announcing the January 2009 OFAC order, the Treasury Department said that Alex Tsai was designated for providing, or attempting to provide, financial, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), which was designated as a proliferator by President George W. Bush in June 2005. The Treasury Department asserted that Alex Tsai “has been supplying goods with weapons production capabilities to KOMID and its subordinates since the late 1990s, and he has been involved in shipping items to North Korea that could be used to support North Korea’s advanced weapons program.” The Treasury Department further said that Global Interface was designated “for being owned or controlled by Tsai,” who is a shareholder of the company and acts as its president. Tsai is also the general manager of Trans Merits Co. Ltd., which was designated for being a subsidiary owned or controlled by Global Interface Company Inc.

After the OFAC designations, Alex and Gary Tsai and Individual A allegedly continued to conduct business together but attempted to hide Alex Tsai’s and Trans Merit’s involvement in those transactions by conducting business under different company names, including Trans Multi Mechanics. For example, by August 2009—approximately eight months after the OFAC designations—Alex and Gary Tsai, Individual A, and others allegedly began using Trans Multi Mechanics to purchase and export machinery on behalf of Trans Merits and Alex Tsai. Specifically, the charges allege that in September 2009, they purchased a Bryant center hole grinder from a U.S. company based in suburban Chicago and exported it to Taiwan using the company Trans Multi Mechanics. A Bryant center hole grinder is a machine tool used to grind a center hole, with precisely smooth sides, through the length of a material.

The charges further allege that by at least September 2009, Gary Tsai had formed a machine tool company named Factory Direct Machine Tools in Glenview, Illinois, which was in the business of importing and exporting machine tools, parts, and other items to and from the United States. However, the charges allege that Alex Tsai and Trans Merits were active partners in Factory Direct Machine Tools, in some instances procuring the goods for import to the United States for Factory Direct Machine Tool customers.

Violating IEEPA carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine; money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine; and conspiracy to defraud the United States carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If convicted, the court must impose a reasonable sentence under federal statutes and the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The government is being represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Patrick Pope and Brian Hayes.

The public is reminded that a complaint is not evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent and are entitled to a fair trial at which the government has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Share

DPRK tried to ship gas masks to Syria

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

According to the Los Angeles Times:

North Korea tried to export gas masks to Syria this spring, presumably for use in the Middle East nation’s chemical weapons program, but the shipment was intercepted by Turkey along with arms and ammunition, a Japanese newspaper reported Tuesday.

The Libya-flagged ship El Entisar (“Victory”) was stopped April 3 by Turkish authorities as it passed through the Dardanelles, the Sankei Shimbun reported. Acting on the tip from the United States, authorities searched the ship and seized 1,400 rifles and pistols and about 30,000 rounds of ammunition as well as the gas masks.

The captain of the vessel admitted that the shipment had come from North Korea, according to the newspaper, which said the plan was for the arms to be unloaded in Turkey and transported by land into Syria to support the government of President Bashar Assad.

The revelation comes amid international outrage over accusations that Syrian troops used chemical weapons against civilians suburbs of Damascus last week. Any connection between North Korea and the alleged attacks could further isolate North Korea.

This is not the first time that North Korea has been accused of supplying equipment related to chemical arms to Syria. In November 2009, Greece seized almost 14,000 suits that provide protection from such weapons on a North Korean ship they believed was headed to Syria. South Korean authorities also intercepted a North Korean shipment of protective gear on a vessel sailing near the South Korean port of Busan that year.

“There is a long-term relationship between North Korea and Syria, similar to the agreement with Iran, on nuclear and conventional weapons,” said Park Syung-je, a military expert at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul. “I don’t see any signs that it has diminished.”

A Syrian delegation was reported to have visited Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, in late July. The Korean Central News Agency quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un saying the talks were aimed as “boasting bilateral relations” between their countries.

Read the full story here:
North Korea tried to ship gas masks to Syria, report says
Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick
2013-8-27

Share

Cuba – DPRK military shipment intercepted in Panama (UPDATED)

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

UPDATE 37 (2014-8-15): Japan has also imposed sanctions on Ocean Maritime Management. According to Reuters:

Japan on Friday froze the assets of the operator of a North Korean ship seized for smuggling arms, the Foreign Ministry said, just as Tokyo is engaged in talks with Pyongyang to return Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents decades ago.

The sanction against Ocean Maritime Management, which operated the ship detained near the Panama Canal a year ago carrying Soviet-era arms, follows similar steps by the United States and U.N. blacklisting of the North Korean firm in July.

UPDATE 36 (2014-7-30): The United States imposed sanctions on two North Korean shipping firms involved in the Chongchongang incident. According to Yonhap:

The Department of the Treasury announced the sanctions, saying Chongchongang Shipping Co. is the operator of the once-seized freighter Chong Chon Gang and Ocean Maritime Management Co. played a key role in having the ship’s crew lie about the cargo and providing false documents to Panamanian authorities.

“North Korea uses companies like Chongchongang Shipping and Ocean Maritime Management to engage in arms trading in violation of U.S and international sanctions,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in a statement.

“The Chong Chon Gang episode, in which the DPRK (North Korea) tried to hide an arms shipment under tons of sugar, is a perfect example of North Korea’s deceptive activity, and precisely the sort of conduct that we are committed to disrupting,” he said.

Under the new sanctions, any property or interests in property of the designated entities that are within U.S. jurisdiction must be frozen, the department said. In addition, transactions by U.S. persons or within the United States involving the designated entities or identified vessels are generally prohibited, it said.

UPDATE 35 (2014-7-28): U.N. blacklists operator of North Korean ship seized in Panama. According to Reuters:

The North Korea (DPRK) sanctions committee designated Ocean Maritime Management, which operated the Chong Chon Gang, the ship detained a year ago carrying arms, including two MiG-21 jet fighters, under thousands of tonnes of sugar.

The company is now subject to an international asset freeze and travel ban. 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.

“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.

UPDATE 34 (2014-7-16): Detained Crew to Seek Compensation. According to the Daily NK:

The captain and crew of a North Korean vessel that was seized and impounded by the government of Panama are to file suit for compensation, Voice of America reported today.

Attorney Julio Berrios, acting for the North Korean side, is reported as saying that the Panamanian government must “take a responsibility for the year-long period of detention during which crew members Captain Lee Young Il, Chief Mate Hong Yong Hyun and Political Officer Kim Young Geol were deprived of their freedom as well as pay.”

All members of the crew were found not guilty of trafficking in undeclared weapons and left Panama on July 12th, five months after thirty-two other crewmembers were released and returned to North Korea.

“Although I haven’t received payroll data from the vessel operator as yet, in the case of the captain we will demand at least $18,000 USD of compensation, as his monthly salary was $1,500 USD,” Berrios alleged.

He also explained that the North Korean government is hoping to receive compensation for damages done to the vessel’s cargo. The total price for ten thousand tons of sugar is more than $5m USD, he asserted.

However, he emphasized, “The North Korean side wants a diplomatic solution rather than a legal solution.”

UPDATE 33 (2014-7-13): DPRK ship crew members leave Panama. According to Yonhap:

Three crew members of a North Korean ship who were recently acquitted of charges of smuggling weapons through the Panama Canal have been released, a U.S. report said Sunday.

Voice of America (VOA) said the captain and two crew members aboard the Chong Chon Gang were released by the authorities in Panama on Friday and left for Cuba the following day. The three are scheduled to stop over in Moscow and Beijing before arriving in Pyongyang.

UPDATE 32 (2014-6-27): The Associated Press reports that the boat captain has been freed:

A Panamanian judge absolved the captain and two other officers of charges stemming from the seizure of a North Korean ship last July for carrying undeclared military equipment from Cuba, a court statement said Friday.

The court in Colon ruled that the weapons and other equipment should be turned over to Panamanian authorities.

The court ordered the three crewmen of the Chong Chon Gang freed, saying the issue of whether the ship violated a U.N. arms embargo against North Korea was not a matter for Panama to decide.

The ship’s other 32 sailors were allowed to sail the vessel back to North Korea in February after the owner paid a $700,000 fine.

UPDATE 31 (2014-6-10): Singapore prosecutor files charges against comapny and individual involved in setting up Chongchongang shipment. According to the BBC:

Singapore has filed criminal charges against a shipping company accused of helping to smuggle missiles and fighter jets from Cuba to North Korea.

The Chinpo Shipping Company has been charged with transferring assets in breach of UN sanctions on North Korea.

The huge shipment of arms was seized in Panama last year hidden under a cargo of sugar.

In March, the UN named Chinpo Shipping as one of two companies involved in trying to ship arms to North Korea.

The charge sheets said Chinpo Shipping had transferred $72,000 (£43,000) to a Panama shipping company in March when it had reason to believe that the money might be used to contribute to North Korea’s weapons programmes.

Chinpo executive Tan Hui Tin, 50, who is the daughter of Chinpo’s chairman, was charged with withholding potential electronic evidence.

Chinpo Shipping has not yet commented on the charges.

Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “Singapore takes a serious view of our international obligations to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and related materials.”

Under United Nations sanctions, North Korea is banned from weapons exports and the import of all but small arms.

Here is coverage in Bernama.

Here is coverage in Yonhap.

UPDATE 30 (2014-6-6): Panamanian prosecutors seek eight-year prison term for boat captain/crew. According to Yonhap:

Panamanian prosecutors have demanded an eight-year prison term for three crew members of a North Korean ship accused of shipping Cuban weapons, a U.S. radio report said Friday.

The request was made during a trial on Wednesday, the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) said, citing prosecutor Roberto Moreno of the Panamanian Attorney General’s Office.

The North Korean freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, was seized by the Panamanian authorities in July 2013 while carrying Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and other arms-related material hidden under sacks of sugar.

Panama released the other 32 crew members without charge after North Korea paid US$690,000 in fines in February but indicted the three, including the captain, on charges of illegal arms deals.

The VOA added that a sitting judge is expected to deliver a ruling within a month.

UPDATE 29 (2014-5-15): According to Yonhap, the remaining crew will go on trial in June 2014. According to the article:

Three members of a North Korean ship seized by Panama last year for carrying Cuban weapons are scheduled to appear for a trial in Panama next month, a U.S. radio report said on May 13.

The court set the date for June 4 for the captain and two crew members of the Chong Chon Gang, the Washington-based Voice of America said, citing Prosecutor Roberto Moreno of the Panamanian Attorney General’s Office.

Moreno said a judge can issue a ruling within 30 days, though it may take months if the North Koreans appeal the verdict.

The trial comes 11 months after the Panamanian authorities seized the North Korean ship carrying Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missile and other arms-related material hidden under sacks of sugar.

Panama released the other 32 crew members of the Chong Chon Gang without charge after North Korea paid US$690,000 in fines in February.

UPDATE 28 (2014-3-19): The Chongchongang is included in the third UN Panel of Experts report on the DPRK.

UPDATE 27 (2014-2-15): Chongchongang leaves Panama, headed back to Cuba. According to Business Insider:

A North Korean ship detained near the Panama Canal for smuggling Cuban weapons set sail back for the Caribbean island on Saturday with most of its crew on board after it paid a fine, the government said.

More in Reuters:

Crew members were informed they were free to go on Tuesday, Panama’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The three highest-ranking people on the ship, including the captain, will remain detained in Panama, where they are being charged with weapons trafficking.

Panamanian prosecutors concluded the three had a “clear involvement” in smuggling the arms, including the two MiG-21 aircraft, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles.

UPDATE 26 (2014-2-13): Media reports indicate that UN investigators have stated that the ship was violating sanctions. According to the Miami Herald:

A shipment of Cuban weapons to North Korea last summer violated a U.N. arms embargo on the Asian nation and showed a “comprehensive planned strategy to conceal” the cargo, a team of U.N. sanctions investigators have reportedly concluded.

Japan’s Kyodo News International news agency reported that the secret report submitted by the investigators to the U.N. Security Council states that the Cuban shipment constituted “sanctions violations.”

“The employment of so many role-players in support of the trip suggests a network of entities centrally managed working together to deflect scrutiny in order to evade sanctions by minimizing the DPRK’s visibility in transactions,” the U.N. investigators wrote.

UPDATE 25 (2014-2-8): The DPRK has paid the fine and most sailors freed. According to Reuters:

A North Korean ship detained near the Panama Canal for holding Cuban weapons is free to go after the ship’s representatives on Saturday paid a $693,333 fine to the Panama Canal Authority, the authority said in a statement.

The return of the Chong Chon Gang to North Korea would end part of a bizarre case involving the three countries that provoked international controversy.

The ship was seized in July for smuggling Soviet-era arms, including two MiG-21 aircraft, under 10,000 tons of sugar.

Since then, the ship has been moored at the Manzanillo International Terminal on Panama’s Atlantic side while the canal authority waited for the payment of at least two-thirds of the $1 million fine it imposed for trying to traffic illegal weapons through the waterway.

Panamanian prosecutors last week dropped charges against 32 of the 35 crew members and they were transferred into the custody of immigration officials.

The three highest-ranking crew members, including the captain, are being charged with weapons trafficking, prosecutors said.

They concluded the three had a “clear involvement” in smuggling the Soviet-era arms, including the two MiG-21 aircraft, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles.

The prosecutors’ decision was based on interviews with the crew and translations of key documents found in the ship.

Panama’s Foreign Minister Francisco Alvarez de Soto did not immediately return calls or messages Saturday and it was not clear when the ship or the crew would leave Panama.

The U.N. Security Council has yet to decide on penalties against Cuba because of a seven-year-old ban against arms transfers to North Korea due to the country’s nuclear weapons program.

A preliminary report, presented by a panel of experts to the Sanctions Committee at the U.N. Security Council and given to Panamanian authorities last August, concluded the shipment “without doubt” was a violation of U.N. sanctions.

Panamanian officials have said the arms will likely be sold or given away and the sugar sold to companies interested in turning it into ethanol.

The North Korean crew sabotaged the ship’s electrical system and bilge pumps after Panamanian investigators stopped the ship near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal on suspicion it was carrying drugs after leaving Cuba.

After the arms were discovered hidden beneath the sugar, Cuba acknowledged it was sending 240 tons of “obsolete” Soviet-era weapons to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba. Cuban officials told Panama the cargo was a donation of sugar for the people of North Korea.

Here is coverage in Xinhua.

UPDATE 24 (2013-12-3): The DPRK has agreed to pay fine of $670,000 for boat’s return.  According to Infosurhoy:

North Korea has agreed to pay a reduced fine to ensure the return of a ship stopped near the Panama Canal that had military weapons from Cuba on board.

The settlement should end a protracted dispute over the Chong Chon Gang, the freighter intercepted by Panamanian customs officers on July 10 as it approached the canal.

Authorities uncovered 25 containers of military hardware, including two MiG-21 fighter jets, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles, concealed under 200,000 sacks of sugar.

Panama, which is holding the North Korean ship’s 35-strong crew at a former U.S. naval base, previously said North Korea must pay a US$1 million penalty for the boat’s release.

But Julio Berríos, a lawyer for the crew, said a reduced fine of $670,000 had been agreed between local officials and a North Korean delegation that traveled to Panama to resolve the issue.

UPDATE 23 (2013-11-27): Panama appears to have reversed its decision and is keeping most of the crew detained.  According to ABC News:

A Panamanian prosecutor who reported the release of all but three of 35 crewmen of a North Korean ship seized for carrying Cuban weapons reversed his story Wednesday afternoon, saying all were still being held.

Organized crime prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas first said only the ship’s captain, first mate and a Korean official who watched the crew would continue to be detained and face charges of arms trafficking. He appeared later in the afternoon at the base where the crew members were being held and changed his version, saying only the ship was legally free to go. He left without further comment.

UPDATE 22 (2013-10-21): Panama claims it will release most of the crew. According to the New York Times:

The authorities in Panama said Monday that they would release 33 of the 35 North Korean crew members of a rusting freighter impounded more than three months ago for carrying a secret stash of Soviet-era Cuban military gear hidden under bags of brown sugar.

Neither the captain, who tried to slit his throat when the Panamanian marine police boarded the vessel, nor the captain’s aide is free to go, said a top official at Panama’s Foreign Ministry. The official, who spoke by telephone on the condition of anonymity because of ministry policy, said the two North Koreans had not cooperated and may still face criminal charges.

The Foreign Ministry official said that the other crew members had cooperated, and that all of them had asserted that they had no idea the vessel was carrying military cargo. Two North Korean diplomats have been granted visas, the official said, to travel to Panama and to complete arrangements for those crew members to leave the country.

UPDATE 21 (2013-10-11): The Christian Science Monitor offers some additional details on the shipment:

Two Cuban MiG-21 jet fighters found aboard a seized North Korean cargo ship three months ago were in good repair, had been recently flown and were accompanied by “brand-new” jet engines, Panamanian officials say.

“They had jet fuel still inside their tanks,” Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega told McClatchy in an interview earlier this month. “They were not obsolete and in need of repair.”

One of the MiG-21s contained manuals and maintenance records that indicated it was flying just a few months earlier, said prosecutor Javier Caraballo, who’s handling an arms trafficking case against the 35 North Korean crew members. Mr. Caraballo declined a reporter’s request to see the records.

In publicly acknowledging the shipment after it was discovered, Cuban officials insisted that the ship was carrying only old aircraft and other parts that were being sent to North Korea for repair when Panamanian authorities, acting on a tip that it was carrying drugs, intercepted it.

Panamanian officials now think that the shipment was part of what Mr. Nunez Fabrega called “a major deal” between the two countries, though they aren’t certain of its scope.

Officials searching the vessel found the MiG aircraft in sealed containers hidden under 100-pound bags of sugar – 10,000 tons worth – in the ship’s hold. They also uncovered 15 jet engines and other weaponry.

“These are brand-new engines,” Nunez Fabrega said. He said Cuban officials in their public statement also “generalized over very specific items that could have gotten them in trouble,” such as a guidance system for anti-aircraft missile defense.

The UN monitoring team still seeks answers from Cuba about the arms shipment, and the team will provide a UN sanctions committee with a detailed report once it has those answers.

A senior aide to the foreign minister, Tomas A. Cabal, said the deal had been arranged at a meeting June 29 in Havana among Cuban leader Raul Castro, Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias, and Kim Kyok Sik, who was then the chief of the Korean People’s Army general staff. Mr. Kim was dismissed from his post in August, a month after the ship was seized.

Mr. Cabal said “friends overseas” had told Panama that the two MiG-21s were part of a larger deal between Cuba and North Korea for 12 jet fighters. That assertion couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Meanwhile, the 35 crew members from the Chong Chon Gang are biding their time at a former US military base near the Panama Canal. It’s not exactly hard time, officials say. In fact, it’s better than living aboard the vessel, which reeked of poor hygiene when it was seized.

Caraballo said the crew members, while under armed guard, were enjoying conditions that were “10 times better than where they were.”

“They are quite comfortable,” Caraballo said. “They’ve been given clean clothing, food, cigarettes to smoke. . . . They have a television. They can play soccer each afternoon.”

They live in air-conditioned quarters, a physician attends to them, and a telephone is available for them to communicate with the North Korean Embassy in Havana, he said. Panama doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

While the ship’s crew and captain have offered statements through Korean translators brought in from Mexico, they’ve refused to sign the depositions, Caraballo said.

It hasn’t been decided what will happen to the weaponry that was aboard the ship.

Panama is treading lightly in the case, wary of angering Cuba, which Nunez Fabrega said was “one of the biggest customers of the free zone” in Colon, where it buys abundant goods as a consequence of the five-decade-old US embargo on the island. A ship travels weekly from Colon to Havana to supply Cuba’s tourist hotels.

Caraballo, a drug prosecutor who was summoned to handle the seized ship because initial reports said it was carrying narcotics, said the captain had affirmed that he knew containers were in the hold but “didn’t know what was in the containers.”

The North Koreans have been charged with arms trafficking, which could carry up to a 12-year term, Caraballo said.

But Nunez Fabrega said Panama was eager for the crew and ship to be on their way once North Korea settles a fine of up to $1 million imposed by the Panama Canal Authority for endangering the waterway by transporting undeclared weaponry.

“We have no interest in keeping that boat here,” Nunez Fabrega said, noting that it’s the largest freighter in North Korea’s merchant fleet.

As for the seized sugar, it’s being kept in silos in Penonome in central Panama’s Cocle province, Caraballo said. What will happen to it is unclear. “This sugar may last there another 10 months without it being damaged,” he said.

UPDATE 20 (2013-9-26): Panama fines DPRK ship. According to the AFP:

The Panama Canal Authority announced Thursday that it slapped a $1 million fine on a North Korean cargo ship caught with an undeclared shipment of Cuban weapons in July.

The canal administrator, Jorge Quijano, said the ship was sanctioned because “it put our canal and our people at risk to a certain point.”

The fine was delivered to the freighter’s captain and owners, he said, adding that the boat is barred from unmooring until they pay at least two-thirds of the penalty, or around $650,000.

He said the penalty could change depending on the response of the ship’s owners, but they have not replied.

The Panamanian government said last month that a United Nations report found that the shipment was a violation of UN sanctions against arms transfers to North Korea’s communist regime.

The Wall Street Journal has more here.

UPDATE 19 (2013-9-25): Panamanian President says ship violates UNSC resolutions. According to Yonhap:

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli told the United Nations on Wednesday that the “undeclared war material” onboard a North Korea-bound ship his country seized in July was a clear violation of past Security Council sanctions.

“An enormous amount of war material that, by definition and destination clearly violates Security Council Committee mandates, were discovered hidden under 200 tons of raw sugar,” he told the annual gathering of world leaders in New York and the 68th General Assembly.

The president said that authorities stopped the Chong Chon Gang, which was coming from Cuba, before it entered the Panama Canal on reports that the ship was carrying drugs.

North Korea and Cuba have said that the ship was carrying “aging” or “obsolete” weapons to be overhauled and sent back to Cuba.

The U.N. committee that oversees the North Korean sanctions is awaiting a final report about an August trip to Panama where experts on a panel were sent to investigate the cargo.

UPDATE 18 (2013-8-30): Cuban and DPRK military staff purged. Possibly related to botched operation.

Earlier this week, the head of the Cuban Air Force, General Pedro Mendiondo Gomez, died in a mysterious car wreck.

North Korea’s Army Chief, General Kim Kyok-sik, was mysteriously purged and disappeared.

UPDATE 17 (2013-8-27): The DPRK is sending a delegation to Panama. According to AFP:

A North Korean delegation is expected to visit Panama to see 35 sailors who were detained there after their ship was impounded and Cuban arms were detected aboard.

“We issued them visas so they could enter and they will receive” them tomorrow, Wednesday, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez said on Tuesday.

The sailors have been held on arms trafficking charges that carry maximum sentences of up to 12 years in prison.

The ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was boarded and searched July 10 on suspicion it was smuggling drugs through the Panama Canal.

Authorities instead uncovered 25 containers filled with military hardware, including two stripped down Soviet era MiG-21s, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles, buried under tons of sugar.

Havana said they were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.

The sailors are being held at Fort Sherman, a former US military base.

Nunez said their fate depended on Panama’s legal process. The Latin American country has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.

A team of UN experts traveled to Panama to inspect the weapons and determine whether the shipment violated a ban against arms transfers to North Korea.

UPDATE 16 (2013-8-27): The latest from Hugh Griffiths and Roope Siiritola at 38 North, “Full Disclosure: Contents of North Korean Smuggling Ship Revealed.”

UPDATE 15 (2013-8-16): Panama states its intention to sanction DPRK vessel. According to the Straits Times:

The Panama Canal authority said on Thursday it will impose a fine of as much as US$1 million (S$1.27 million) on the North Korean freighter caught with an undeclared shipment of Cuban weapons.

“It is a flagrant violation of safe passage through the Panama Canal and we have little tolerance for this kind of activity,” canal administrator Jorge Quijano said.

“It is going to be sanctioned,” he said, adding that the authorities were still mulling the size of the fine.

“It’s obvious that there were containers that had not been declared, not to mention what was inside them.” The ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was boarded and searched July 10 on suspicion it was smuggling drugs.

UPDATE 14 (2013-8-14): North Korean crew likely to be returned to DPRK and UN inspectors in Panama. According to Reuters:

Panama likely will return the 35-member crew of a North Korean ship detained for smuggling Cuban weapons under 10,000 tons of sugar to their native country in about a month, a government official familiar with the incident said on Tuesday.

“They’re going to leave soon, like in a month, most likely they’ll go back to Korea,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “There is another possibility that they’re returned to Cuba and from there go to Korea.”

The Central American country will not respond to a request from Pyongyang seeking a “diplomatic manner” to resolve the future of the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, until the U.N. Security Council determines whether the shipment breached a wide-ranging North Korean arms embargo.

The crew have been charged with threatening Panama’s security by seeking to move undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal. The Panamanian government official did not say why the crew likely would be released or how the charges would be resolved.

A team of six U.N. Security Council experts arrived in Panama on Monday and will issue a report on whether the weapons violate a 7-year-old U.N. ban on arms transfers to North Korea because of its nuclear weapons and missile development.

UPDATE 13 (2013-8-11): Panama announces end of search of North Korean ship. According to the AP (via USA Today):

Panamanian officials say they’re ending their search of a North Korean ship that was detained as it carried weapons from Cuba.

Public Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino tells the Associated Press that Panama removed the ship’s last unopened container, which was buried under sacks of sugar, and found it held equipment for launching missiles.

Panama has unloaded and searched 25 containers, finding a variety of weapons systems and parts. Cuba says it was not violating sanctions meant to halt sophisticated arms sales to North Korea because the ship contained obsolete weapons being sent back for repair.

But some of the containers were loaded with undeclared live munitions, and United Nations experts will be in Panama in the coming days to prepare a report on whether the shipment violated sanctions.

UPDATE 12 (2013-8-11): Panama finds explosives on North Korea-bound ship. According to the Straits Times:

Authorities in Panama say they have found more explosives aboard a North Korean-flagged ship detained in the Panama Canal for carrying undeclared arms from Cuba.

Anti-drug prosecutor Javier Caraballo said on Saturday that inspectors found a kind of “anti-tank RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)” explosive when they opened one of five wooden boxes on the Chong Chon Gang. He said the other boxes were not opened because of security fears.

UPDATE 11 (2013-8-2): Panama finds munitions in the ship. According to the Associated Press:

Explosive-sniffing dogs found ammunition for grenade launchers and other unidentified types, said prosecutor Javier Caraballo, who did not specify the amount of munitions.

As of Friday, crews had only unloaded two of five cargo holds in the ship. Besides the munitions, they had found radar and control systems for launching missiles, two Mig-21 aircraft and 12 motors.

The weapons discovery triggered an investigation by the U.N. Security Council committee that monitors the sanctions against North Korea. The council is sending a team to see if the discovery violates U.N. sanctions. Panama earlier this week asked to postpone the visit to Aug. 12 because it is taking so long to unload the ship.

Panama has filed charges against the crew for transporting undeclared military equipment.

UPDATE 10 (2013-8-1): Melissa Hanham has done thorough research into this story for 38 North.

UPDATE 9 (2013-7-31): Panama uncovers fighter jet engines from seized North Korean ship. According to the Straits Times:

Panamanian investigators unloading the cargo of a seized North Korean ship carrying arms from Cuba under sacks of brown sugar have found 12 engines for MiG-21 fighter jets and five military vehicles that officials said resembled missile control centers.

Investigators earlier this month had found two MiG-21 fighter jets and two missile radar systems on board the Chong Chon Gang, which was bound for North Korea when it was stopped by officials.

Panamanian Security Minister Jose Mulino said on Tuesday the cargo appeared to fall within what Cuba had said was a range of “obsolete” arms being sent to North Korea for repair.

Panama asked the United Nations to delay the arrival of investigators by a week until Aug. 12, because the process of unloading cargo found under 100,000 tons of sugar has taken longer than expected.

UPDATE 8 (2013-7-26): Panamanian authorities continue search at seized North Korean ship (La Prensa website, Panama City, in Spanish 26 Jul 13). Translated by BBC monitoring service:

The first drug prosecutor Javier Caraballo, said yesterday that the military equipment found so far in the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang matches the list issued by the Cuban Government last week, when they recognized the ownership of the shipment that was bound to North Korea.

According to Caraballo, however, inspection practiced in the vessel and that yesterday reached its eleventh consecutive day, is not based only on the content of the Cuban list.

He explained that until yesterday they had found nine containers in the first warehouse, seven of which were opened.

In these seven deposits they found two MIG-21 Bis aircraft, anti-aircraft radar systems, fire control radars, high power electrical generators and military trailers, all of which coincid! es with what was on the list of the Caribbean country.

The other two containers, he said, have not been opened yet.

He acknowledged that they could not go at the speed they expected in searching, sorting and inventory of military cargo, due to the large amount of sugar bags placed on the containers.

“The issue is going a little slow, not because of the difficulty of the work, but by the amount of sugar and because we have to locate a place to put the product” he added.

He also reiterated that the prosecution has had difficulty making inquiries statements to the 35 crew members detained since none speaks Spanish, few understand English and the Public Ministry has no Korean language translators.

The 35 sailors were charged for alleged crimes against collective security, in the form of possession and illicit arms trafficking, and prosecution ordered custody. All are being held at the base of Sherman.

Meanwhile, Public Security Minister, Jose! Raul Mulino, who was there part of the afternoon yesterday at the port of Manzanillo, confirmed that the hauling of sacks of sugar in the five holds of the ship continues.

He said that the ninth container located in the first warehouse in the boat has not been taken out, because it is almost buried under pounds of brown sugar.

He reported that the eighth container is already in the harbor and was revised with scanners, but it has not been inspected because it is expected that the prosecution authorities give the corresponding order.

Mulino said that since last Tuesday he asked the Ministry of Health to fumigate the ship once a day, in order to clear the enormous amount of bees that invade the vessels by the presence of sugar.

He added that in two weeks they will have the results of the health tests carried to the sugar by experts from the Institute of Agricultural Marketing.

UPDATE 7 (2013-7-20): The Washington Post updates us on other shipments between the DPRK and Cuba:

The freighter’s detention has thrown a light on the secretive deals North Korea is making, possibly in breach of United Nations sanctions, as it struggles for survival.

The voyage of the freighter Chong Chon Gang to Cuba, far from the Chinese waters where it normally operates, is not the first time a ship from the isolated communist country has followed that route.

North Korean vessels have made at least seven other trips to Cuba in the past few years, with three stopping at the same two ports as the Chong Chon Gang, according to two organizations that monitor North Korea, the Panamanian authorities and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Several of the freighters were operated or managed by Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), a Pyongyang-based company with links to the North Korean government, which is also the registered manager of the detained vessel, according to the Wisconsin Project, which uses ship tracking databases to follow North Korean and other vessels.

The journeys, made by ships that normally stay close to the Korean peninsula, are an indication that the Chong Chon Gang’s voyage may have been part of a wider, established trade route, amid an increasingly warm relationship between the two communist nations.

In a statement, Cuba said there was a “legitimate contract” for North Korea to repair and then return armaments, which they said included antiaircraft missile systems and two disassembled Mig-21s. The sugar on board was probably intended as payment for the work, according to monitors.

In the days before it was seized, the Chong Chon Gang had passed through the Panama Canal and called at two Cuban ports: Havana and Puerto Padre, a major sugar export center, according to the Wisconsin Project.

Another vessel, the Oun Chong Nyon Ho, made an almost identical voyage through the canal and to the same two Cuban ports in May 2012. It passed back through the Panamanian waterway without being searched. In May 2009, the North Korean- flagged Mu Du Bong went through the canal and stopped in Havana, Cuba’s capital city. Both are currently managed by OMM, according to the Wisconsin Project.

A third ship, the Po Thong Gang, traveled through the canal and called at Puerto Padre in April 2012. During the previous year, it had visited Havana and Santiago de Cuba, according to research by Matthew Godsey of the Wisconsin Project. It was linked to OMM until 2008 and is now registered to a different company at the same address, Godsey said.

Hugh Griffiths, a maritime arms trafficking expert based at SIPRI, said his monitoring database has recorded two further North Korean-linked ships that have docked in Cuba on three occasions in the past 18 months. Two of the trips stopped at both Havana and Puerto Padre, the two Cuban ports visited by the Chong Chon Gang and the Oun Chong Nyon Ho, he said.

Griffiths said there was a “definite possibility” that other ships had made the journey from North Korea to Cuba undetected by registering under false ownership or by turning off onboard satellite transponders to avoid being tracked, as the Chong Chon Gang appears to have done.

The OMM company is registered to a P.O. box number in the North Korean capital and has 17 ships that largely ply their trade in the waters around China. Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime, a consultancy firm, described it as the biggest state-owned shipping company in North Korea.

“It claims to have shipping agents in all the major [North Korean] ports as well as overseas, such as Dalian in China, Port Said in Egypt and Vladivostok in Russia,” he said.

OMM also owns a crew-training center and the Ryongnam Dockyard on North Korea’s west coast, which has reportedly been involved in the construction of military vessels, he said. OMM is also responsible for handling passport applications for all North Korean sailors.

Li said the Chong Chon Gang’s detention and voyages by other ships owned by OMM demonstrates that “some kind of ‘trade route’ no matter how slight, has been established between [North Korea] and Cuba.”

John Park, an expert on North Korea and associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said that the Chong Chon Gang’s voyage would not have been a “freelance-type transaction” but would have been part of a “broader revenue generation effort to essentially make money for the regime.”

Park said only the military was capable of carrying out repair work on the Cuban armaments, adding, “Given the contents of the consignment, it looks like it is a North Korean military-linked state trading company.”

Calls to the company’s listed phone number were disconnected a few seconds after being answered.

“The relationship between [North Korea] and Cuba is a lot closer than it used to be,” said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch. “There’s been a lot more contact and interactions between senior Cuban officials and senior North Korean officials in recent years.”

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said the interception in Panama is unlikely to disrupt those ties and North Korea would look for a new route. Repairing old weapons is one of the “few things that North Korea is good at,” he said. “I don’t think the North Koreans are going to give that up.”

UPDATE 6 (2013-7-18): According to the Associated Press:

Panama has filed charges against the crew of a North Korean ship seized as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal while carrying obsolete weaponry from Cuba hidden under bags of sugar, possibly in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Ramon Lopez, operations director for Panama’s National Aeronautics Service, said authorities decided to stop the ship after getting intelligence from the United States and other countries about a suspicious North Korean vessel.

“There was a lot of tension and strong resistance during the inspection,” said Lopez, adding that the inspection lasted for three days.

Panama’s top prosecutor, Javier Caraballo, said the captain and 35 crew members have been charged with “attempts against Panama’s security” and “illegally transporting undeclared military equipment.”

The North Korean Foreign Ministry had urged Panama to let the crew go, but Caraballo said late Wednesday that the charges will force the crew to remain while authorities search the ship further. Investigators were still unloading sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar Thursday.

Caraballo said the North Korean sailors could face four to six years in prison if convicted on the “attempts against Panama’s security” charge alone.

“According to the ship’s manifesto, this boat only had 220,000 quintals of sugar. It never declared the military weapons, and obviously this in itself is a violation of the rules and it puts in grave danger all who transit through the Panama Canal,” he said.

The captain and crew members have refused to speak to authorities, Caraballo said.

Caraballo also said shipping the weapons through the canal likely violated U.N. resolutions that ban North Korea from buying and selling missiles and other heavy arms.

Cuba has said it was sending the weapons, including missiles, two jet fighters and radar equipment, for repair in North Korea.

Panama’s government announced Wednesday night that visas issued by the Panamanian Embassy in Cuba’s capital to two North Korean officials based there were not valid because they were not authorized by prosecutors.

The diplomats had arranged to travel to this Central American country to inspect the ship and give their country’s version of events, but authorities said Panama would have to re-issue the visas.

“Only the attorney general may authorize citizens of the Republic of North Korea to conduct inspections of the ship because it’s a seized ship,” the presidency said in a statement. “The requested document in our embassy is not a valid one.”

The discovery of the weapons aboard the freighter Chong Chon Gang on Monday is expected to trigger an investigation by the U.N. Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against North Korea. Panamanian officials said U.N. investigators were expected in Panama on Thursday.

Panamanian security officials described to The Associated Press some tense moments aboard the ship after they stopped and boarded it July 10 for an inspection on suspicion it was carrying drugs.

Officials inspected the freighter while anchored a few miles from the port city of Colon. Officers then ordered the ship moved to a pier at the international port of Manzanillo.

Upon arrival, the captain and 35 crew members started to act aggressively, said Lopez of the aeronautics service. He said the captain went into a bathroom and came out holding a knife against his neck, threatening to cut himself.

“He made a small wound on his neck,” Lopez said.

A sailor was able to neutralize the captain and then the rest of the crew got restless and agents had to separate them, Lopez said.

“They started yelling and beating on a table, on the ship walls,” Lopez said. “They were demanding we free them.”

The captain was taken to a hospital in Colon, where he is in stable condition.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, who first announced the seizure of the ship Monday, said the captain had tried to commit suicide and had a heart attack.

Before the ship arrived in Manzanillo, the agents discovered that under sacks of sugar there was a metal container.

They opened the container and first found a radar control system for surface-to-air missiles, Panamanian authorities said.

Most of the crew was taken off the ship except for two sailors who remain to act as witnesses of the inspection by authorities, Caraballo said.

Read the full story here:
Panama Charges Crew of Seized North Korean Ship
Associated Press
Juan Zamorano and Kathia Martinez

UPDATE 5 (2013-7-17): The Chongchon-gang has been in trouble before. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time:

The 9,147-ton freighter, registered in 1977 to Chongchonggan Shipping Company in Pyongyang, has breached international laws repeatedly. In 2010 it was detained in Ukraine and found to be carrying narcotics and other contraband. In 2001 it set off alarms in South Korea by sailing through the country’s territorial waters near Jeju Island without approval. It later detoured.

This time it raised suspicions by disappearing.

Open-source Global Information System data show the Chong Chon Gang sailed through the Panama Canal on June 1 with a stated destination of Havana, Cuba. After that, the ship disappeared from the GIS satellite-based tracking system for about 40 days before it reappeared at the canal.

The satellite tracks have not recorded any calls by the ship on any Cuban ports, though the North Korean freighter may had just switched off its Automatic Identification System transmitter.

Panama’s security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, said Panamanian officials began tracking the cargo freighter on July 10. Two days later, the ship approached the narrow waterway that Panamanian officials used to corner and capture it after getting a tip that the ship was carrying illegal drugs.

Before being seized in Panama, 35 crew allegedly resisted, with its captain attempting suicide.

UPDATE 4 (2013-7-17): KCNA has published a statement related to the whole situation:

DPRK FM Spokesman Urges Panamanian Authorities Let Apprehended Crewmen, Ship of DPRK Leave

Pyongyang, July 17 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry gave the following answer to a question put by KCNA on Wednesday as regards the case of the DPRK trading ship Chongchongang apprehended in Panama:

There occurred an abnormal case in which the DPRK trading ship Chongchongang was apprehended by the Panamanian investigation authorities on suspicion of “drug transport,” a fiction, before passing through Panama canal after leaving Havana Port recently.

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. Yet, they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kind of cargo aboard the ship.

This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract.

The Panamanian authorities should take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay.

UPDATE 3 (2013-7-17): IHS Janes reports that the components are missile parts. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The military equipment shown in images tweeted by Panama’s president after his government stopped a ship en route to North Korea are radar parts for the SA-2 family of surface-to-air missiles, according to IHS Jane’s Intelligence, the defense consulting firm.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Jane’s identified the parts as an RSN-75 “Fan Song” fire control radar for the missiles.

The way the cargo “was concealed and the reported reaction of the crew strongly suggests this was a covert shipment of equipment,” the firm said. “One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade. In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services.”

In another scenario, the fire-control radar equipment could have been en route to North Korea to augment Pyongyang’s existing air defense network, Jane’s said.

“North Korea’s air defense network is arguably one of the densest in the world, but it is also based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars,” the firm said. “In particular, its high altitude SA-2/3/5 surface-to-air missiles are ineffective in a modern electronic warfare environment.”

UPDATE 2 (2013-7-16): The New York Times offers more details:

It started with a tip: that a rusty North Korean freighter, which had not plied the Caribbean in years, was carrying drugs or arms amid more than 200,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar.

It ended with a five-day, eventually violent standoff between Panamanian marines and 35 North Korean crew members, armed largely with sticks, who were subdued and arrested while their captain, claiming he was having a heart attack, tried to commit suicide. Underneath all that sugar, it turned out, were parts for what appeared to be elements of an antiquated Soviet-era missile radar system that was headed, evidently, to North Korea — a country that usually exports missile technology around the world, rather than bringing it in.

But American and Panamanian officials were still trying to understand why the ship’s crew had fought so hard to repel a boarding party as the ship tried to traverse the Panama Canal. After all, the equipment they were protecting would make a nice exhibit in a museum of cold war military artifacts. “We’re talking old,” one official briefed on the episode said. “When this stuff was new, Castro was plotting revolutions.”

The episode also offered a window on the desperate measures North Korea is taking to keep hard currency and goods flowing at a time when its ships are tracked everywhere, old customers like Syria and Iran are facing sanctions and scrutiny of their own, and its partners have dwindled to a few outliers.

Still, Cuba’s role was puzzling — at a time when Washington has talked of relaxing restrictions and Cuba’s leadership has seemed more eager to improve its ties with the West than to strengthen relations with cold war-era partners.

Even by the measure of bizarre stories about North Korea’s black-market dealings, the events of the past five days in Panama set some records. In recent times North Korean shipments to Myanmar and the Middle East have been tracked and in some cases intercepted, a testament to how closely American spy satellites follow the country’s aging cargo fleet.

“What I can say for sure is that looking at illicit North Korea trade, their ships in particular, these guys are stumped for money, they are incredibly poor,” said Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “Business deals that might look silly to us don’t look ridiculous to them.”

Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, announced the discovery in a radio broadcast on Monday night, making it clear that the North Korean ship was in blatant violation of numerous United Nations sanctions. He even posted a photograph of the contraband on his Twitter account.

“We’re going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside,” Mr. Martinelli said. “You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.”

There was no comment on Tuesday from North Korea on the vessel’s seizure.

The Chong Chon Gang, a 36-year-old freighter, has its own peculiar history, and this was not the first time the vessel had encountered run-ins with maritime authorities. It was stopped in 2010 for carrying narcotics and ammunition, Mr. Griffiths said. He also said it had been attacked by Somali pirates.

According to IHS Fairplay, a London-based vessel-monitoring service, the freighter had not traveled the Western Hemisphere in at least four years. The monitoring data shows that it visited Panama in 2008 and Brazil in 2009.

Mr. Griffiths noted that its reappearance, even with the cover of a Cuban cargo of sugar, was bound to attract attention. He said interest in the vessel’s itinerary in recent weeks, which included a stopover in Havana, might have been heightened because of the July 3 visit to Cuba of North Korea’s top military commander, who conferred with President Raúl Castro. Cuban and North Korean news media publicized the trip.

“There are very few states where the North Korean chief of staff is welcomed for a high-level meeting,” Mr. Griffiths said.

American spy satellites regularly track North Korean vessels — but usually to stop weapons proliferation, not drugs. And as the intelligence agencies discovered several years ago, failure to monitor can lead to other lapses: the United States missed the construction of a North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria until Israeli officials brought evidence of it to Washington in 2007. Israel destroyed the reactor later that year.

Matthew Godsey, editor of the Risk Report, a publication of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a proliferation research group in Washington that follows North Korean behavior, said the Chong Chon Gang might have also been able to travel in the region undetected in the past by turning off its satellite transponder, used by tracking services to monitor vessels for their own safety.

“I think North Korean vessels have been known to do that,” he said. “It’s dangerous, but when you’re carrying dangerous stuff it can happen. When you have a captain willing to kill himself, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Mr. Martinelli and other Panamanian officials said the vessel’s 35 crew members were taken into custody on Sunday after they violently resisted efforts to redirect the vessel to the Panamanian port of Manzanillo, at the Atlantic end of the canal. He did not explain how the captain sought to commit suicide, and the captain’s condition was unknown.

José Raúl Mulino, Panama’s minister of security, said in a telephone interview that the entire crew had been detained at a naval base after committing what he called an act of “rebellion and sabotage” in trying to resist the boarding of the vessel. It was unclear whether they would face criminal prosecution or be sent back to North Korea.

Mr. Mulino said that the suspect cargo was hidden in two containers behind the sugar, and that all 220,000 to 230,000 sugar sacks aboard would be removed before the ship could be completely investigated. The process can take a while, he said, because the crew had disabled the unloading cranes, forcing the Panamanians to remove the bags by hand.

UPDATE 1 (2013-7-16): The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a press statement:

Statement about the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang seized in Panama Canal

The authorities of the Republic of Panama have informed of the detention, in the Panamanian port of Colón, of the merchant vessel Chong Chon Gang, inscribed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, coming from the Republic of Cuba.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to inform that said vessel sailed from a Cuban port to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, mainly loaded with 10,000 Tons of sugar.

In addition, the above mentioned vessel transported 240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons –two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century- to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty.

The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for International Law.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-7-16): Panama detains DPRK-flagged vessel. According to Reuters (via Washington Post):

Panama has detained a North Korean-flagged ship coming from Cuba as it approached the Panama Canal with undeclared weapons, President Ricardo Martinelli said.

The weapons, hidden in containers of brown sugar, were detected after Panamanian authorities stopped the ship, suspecting it was carrying drugs. The vessel was pulled over near the port of Manzanillo on the Atlantic side of the canal.

“We’re going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside,” Martinelli told Panamanian television late on Monday, without giving further details.

“You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.”

Martinelli said the captain of the vessel tried to commit suicide after the ship was stopped. Panamanian authorities have detained some 35 crew members.

A spokeswoman for the canal said she did not have any more information and referred questions to the attorney general.

The attorney general’s office did not immediately return requests for comment.

Javier Caraballo, Panama’s top anti-drugs prosecutor, told local television the ship was en route to North Korea.

Share