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
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.