North arms ship to see UN probePANAMA CITY - A UN team is due to arrive in Panama next month to inspect a North Korean ship that was seized carrying arms from Cuba, a potential breach of UN sanctions that the United States has said is “incredibly concerning.”
The five-member team of UN experts will arrive on Aug. 5 to examine the ship, Panamanian government officials said.
The military cargo is suspected of being in violation of a UN arms embargo that covers all exports by Pyongyang and most imports. North Korea is under a host of UN, U.S. and other sanctions due to repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests since 2006 in defiance of international demands that it stop.
Panama has filed charges against the crew of the ship, which was seized as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal carrying obsolete weaponry from Cuba hidden under bags of sugar. The captain tried to slit his throat during the initial standoff.
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 UN 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.
The U.S. government has strongly backed Panama’s seizure of the ship, the Chong Chon Gang.
“There is a process in place and we are supportive of that process, because the bottom line is that any alleged violation of Security Council sanctions is incredibly concerning to us,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.