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North Korean ship carrying Cuban arms to be freed; two officers held

October 18, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • The North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang docked at the container terminal at Colon City, Panama, on July 16. The ship caught carrying contraband weapons components from Cuba to North Korea will be allowed to return home soon.
The North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang docked at the container… (Arnulfo Franco / Associated…)

A North Korean freighter seized in Panama for carrying contraband fighter jet engines and missile components from Cuba will be released soon and allowed to return home with most of its crew members, Panamanian authorities have decided.

The ship's captain and first officer, however, will remain in Panama pending a decision by United Nations inspectors on whether they should face charges of violating sanctions on weapons trade, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega told journalists in Panama City.

The other 33 crewmen onboard in July when the ship was intercepted off Panama's Atlantic coast probably were unaware that the ship was carrying prohibited cargo, Nunez said, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

All but the two top officers "appear to be ignorant of what was in the cargo," the Panamanian foreign minister said.

Panamanian marines were conducting operations aimed at intercepting illicit drug shipments when they stopped the Chong Chon Gang as it approached the Panama Canal. The tramp steamer attempted to outrun the swift Panamanian patrol boats and sabotaged the ship's electrical system to disable its cranes.

Once the ship was secured at port -- after the captain reportedly tried to cut his own throat -- investigators discovered the contraband weapons hidden in the ship's lower cargo holds beneath 200,000 sacks of sugar.

The ship's manifest said it was carrying only the sugar and 2,000 empty plastic sacks, according to a report by 38 North, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Cuban authorities dismissed the undeclared cargo as "obsolete" weapons parts being sent to North Korea for repair and return.

The 38 North website report, however, said the ship was also carrying small arms, anti-tank ammunition, generators, batteries, night-vision equipment and other more contemporary arms and parts. It also reported that of 15 jet engines found on board, 10 were in "immaculate condition."

"The shipment was without a doubt a violation of United Nations sanctions on North Korea," 38 North stated.

Nunez said Panama was waiting for the arrival of two North Korean officials who could take responsibility for the ship and that it and the 33 crewmen would be free to leave for North Korea as soon as final paperwork was concluded.


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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

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