In July 2014 a US federal court found the DPRK guilty of proliferating weapons and providing training to Hezbollah.
In July 2014 a US federal court found the DPRK guilty of proliferating weapons and providing training to Hezbollah.
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
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….
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.
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
Jin Dong Hyeok
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.”
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.”
Read the full story here:
5 men extradited to U.S. in North Korean meth case
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
According to Yonhap (via Global Post):
North Koreans carrying diplomatic passports were caught smuggling medicine by Mongolian customs officials, a report said Tuesday.
The UB Post monitored in Seoul said two people caught were on an international train running between Beijing and Ulan Bator. It gave no names, but said inspectors discovered large amounts of products in their baggage, including a thousand boxes of injection medicine, 12 boxes of bear spleen products and 20 bottles of alcoholic beverages.
The English language newspaper said those implicated in the illegal transport could not be identified as being incumbent North Korean diplomats.
The cash-strapped North has used its diplomats in the past to smuggle goods. From 2009 onwards, three cases have been reported with the last scandal involving a diplomat stationed in Pakistan, who was caught trying to sell alcohol.
A diplomatic observer said if the two people who are currently being questioned by Mongolian police are real diplomats it could sour relations between Pyongyang and Ulan Bator.
Read the full story here:
North Koreans with diplomatic passports held for smuggling in Mongolia
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
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.
UPDATE 4 (2013-3-27): Myanmar leader denies the materials were bound for his country. According to Yonhap:
Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political advisor to Myanmar President Thein Sein, explicitly denied the allegations, reaffirming his government has no intention of building nuclear weapons.
“We have no great interest to broker such items like aluminium alloy rods,” Ko Ko Hlaing told Yonhap News Agency in an interview in Seoul on the sidelines of a forum on Myanmar’s reform and its implications on North Korea.
“We understand that the result of clandestine arms trafficking is quite treacherous,” he said. “So the reported destination may be elsewhere and the real destination will be in another position. So we can confirm that the real destination is not Myanmar.”
Mynamar had been suspected of pursuing nuclear cooperation with North Korea during decades of its military junta rule that ended in 2011.
Ko Ko Hlaing, a former army officer, said Myanmar has no interest in expanding military ties with other nations, including North Korea.
“With the new government, we have opened to the international communities and also we have achieved a very encouraging peace process,” he said.
“So, we are trying to reduce our defense expenditure and focus our resources on economic and social development rather than army and military development,” he said. “There is no potential to expand military cooperation with North Korea or any other countries.”
UPDATE 3 (2013-3-19): The Japan Times press follows up on the aluminum rods:
Japan has seized aluminium alloy rods that can be used to make nuclear centrifuges from a Singapore-flagged ship found to be carrying cargo from North Korea, the government said Monday.
The five rods were discovered on the ship during its call at Tokyo port last August and were confirmed to be aluminium alloy through tests conducted over the past six months, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
“The aluminium alloy is extremely strong and can be used in centrifuges, which are products related to nuclear development,” Suga said at a regular news briefing.
The rods were being stored at a private warehouse and the government on Monday ordered the firm to hand them over.
The items are the first to be confiscated under a special law passed in 2010 that allows Tokyo to inspect North Korea-related ships suspected of carrying materials that can be used in nuclear and missile programs.
The ship was reportedly on its way to Myanmar when it arrived in Tokyo via the Chinese port of Dalian. Suga confirmed the ship arrived via Dalian but said its cargo was bound for a “third country.”
UPDATE 2 (2012-11-26): Sen. Lugar has written a letter to the Burmese government regarding the shipment. Read more here.
UPDATE 1 (2012-11-26): More information at the Wall Street Journal.
ORIGINAL POST (2012-11-26): According to the Choson Ilbo:
The Japanese government confiscated what appeared to be North Korean aluminum alloy bars from a Singaporean cargo ship at the end of August, the Asahi Shimbun reported Saturday. They were apparently bound for Burma and could have been used in centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
The Wan Hai 313 belonging to a Taiwanese shipping company docked in Tokyo Port. The paper said authorities confiscated 50 metal pipes and 15 high-specification aluminum alloy bars marked “DPRK” for North Korea, “at least some of them offering the high strength needed in centrifuges for a nuclear weapons program.”
Prior to U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma on Nov. 19, the Burmese government pledged to sever military ties with North Korea and open up for nuclear inspection. North Korea makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year by exporting armaments.
The cargo was initially on a different ship in Dalian, China on July 27 and moved to the Wan Hai 313 in Shekou, China on Aug. 9. It was to reach Burma via Malaysia on Aug 15, but the ship entered Tokyo Port on Aug. 22 at the request of the U.S. government.
The aluminum alloy bars were exported by a company based in Dalian, which said it did so at the request of another company. The newspaper wrote, “Authorities concluded that the shipment originated in North Korea because the bars were found to be inscribed ‘DPRK,’ although investigators were unable to confirm the origin from cargo documents or from the ship’s crew, the sources said.”
Read the full story here:
N.Korean Aluminum Shipment to Burma Foiled