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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 272 (July 25, 2013)

2013/07/25 10:31

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korean Ship Seized by Panama for Carrying Undeclared Weapon Awaits U.N. Probe

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A North Korean ship carrying what appear to be missile parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized last week as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country.

The 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang, seized by Panamanian authorities on July 15, was transporting contraband weapons possibly in violation of U.N. sanctions slapped on the North.

North Korea is under broad U.N. sanctions against arms trafficking with other countries after it defiantly launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February.

The ship allegedly was transporting a radar-control system for a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system, according to a private defense analysis firm that examined a photograph of the seized cargo.

North Korea and Cuba have claimed the shipment consisted of "obsolete weaponry" that were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

North Korea has said it was transporting obsolete weaponry under a legitimate contract with Cuba. It demanded an immediate release of the ship and its 35-man crew indicted by local prosecutors for "attempts against Panama's security."

   North Korea's foreign ministry said on July 18 the vessel was transporting "aging weapons," adding that "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," the ministry added.

"An abnormal incident in which our trade ship Chong Chon Gang was seized by Panamanian authorities on suspicion of carrying narcotics has occurred," an unnamed spokesman of North Korea's foreign ministry said in an interview with the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang's official news agency. "The Panamanian authorities should release our crew and vessel without delay."

   The weapons, manufactured in the mid-20th century, were two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missile parts and spares, two MiG-21 Bis and 15 motors for those planes, said Cuban foreign ministry officials in a statement on July 16.

The ship has a public record of carrying narcotics, the ministry officials said. Panama has said it found arms on the ship, and analysts, based on released photos of the captured vessel, said they appear to be missile-related equipment.

Pyongyang denied the allegations, saying, "This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract."

   More specifically, the U.N. resolution of the sanctions ban the North's trade of arms related to combat aircraft and missile systems as well as weapons of massive destruction.

While the U.S. government commended Panama's actions, whether Pyongyang actually violated the U.N. sanctions with the intercepted shipment remains to be seen.

U.S. officials said they will await the results from a U.N. investigation. "There's a U.N. process through the Security Council to determine whether there was a violation of sanctions. That process is ongoing," U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a press briefing on July 17.

"The government of Panama has requested our assistance in this matter," she added. Harf emphasized that North Korea's alleged violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions is "incredibly concerning" to the U.S.

"We take them very seriously. And that's why we're going to support the process going forward," she said, adding that the U.S. will soon discuss the issue with Cuba.

It was the first time that North Korea was spotted carrying missile items since Pyongyang was slapped with fresh U.N. sanctions early March.

"We need to verify the facts first, but if (the seized items) are found to be materials for missiles, we can take actions as they violate the U.N. resolutions," a Seoul government source said, requesting anonymity.

In September 2009, South Korean authorities searched four containers believed to be carrying weapons related to North Korea at the southern port city of Busan.

On July 19, South Korea expressed support for Panama's seizure of the North Korean ship and vowed close international cooperation to fully implement sanctions against its communist neighbor.

The South Korean government "commends and supports the interdiction by the Panamanian government of the Chong Chon Gang."

   "We expect that this case in question will be promptly addressed through investigations by the government of Panama and the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee," it added.

Expressing hope for "full implementation by all states" of the resolutions against Pyongyang, the South Korean government also vowed "a close cooperation with the international community to this end."

   A five-member U.N. team is scheduled to arrive in Panama on Aug. 5 for an on-site examination of the North Korean ship, Panamanian officials said on July 18.

The U.S. government expects a lengthy process to determine whether the shipment is in violation of the U.N. Security Council sanctions.

"The ship is still being off-loaded," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a press briefing in Washington on July 18. "This process, just to set expectations here, will probably be a lengthy one."

   She added, "We're viewing this as a potential violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. That's really the lens through which we're viewing it."

   The U.S. government sought to limit the impact of the incident on apparently warming ties between Washington and Havana.

"I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn't a U.S.-Cuba issue," Harf said. "It's really an issue that we're focused on in terms of the U.N. and the sanctions that we have through the U.N. on North Korea."

   Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on July 18 commended Panama for taking action against the North Korean ship in line with U.N. Security Council sanctions.

"The Secretary-General is aware of the discovery by the Panamanian authorities of a weapons shipment on the DPRK (North Korea) ship sailing from Cuba," his office said in an e-mailed statement. "The Secretary-General commends the action taken by Panama in full conformity with its obligations under the relevant Security Council resolutions."

   In a related development, Panamanian investigators unloading the cargo of the seized North Korean ship have found the two MiG-21 fighter jets the Cuban government had said were on board.

Alongside the two planes, originally produced by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, officials found two missile radar systems, President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama told reporters in the Atlantic port city of Colon.

The discovery, which included cables and electrical equipment, was made inside containers on the ship Panama had feared might contain explosive material. None were found. After stopping the vessel bound for North Korea last week, Panama revealed it had found weapons in the cargo hold late on July 22.

North Korea and Cuba have maintained close and friendly relations since the two countries established diplomatic ties on Aug. 29, 1960.

Earlier this month, top military officials from North Korea and Cuba met in Havana to reaffirm their longtime alliance.

The visiting North Korean military delegation headed by Kim Kyok-sik, the chief of general staff of the Korean People's Army, discussed with chief of Cuban armed forces, Leopoldo Cinta Frias, on ways to bolster military and diplomatic ties between the two countries, the KCNA reported.

The talks proceeded in a cordial fashion, according to the report. The North's delegation had left Pyongyang for Cuba on June 26.

The close alliance between the two ideologically allied countries dates back to 1986 when the then Cuban leader Fidel Castro made the first state visit to Pyongyang on invitation of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.

Sharing a common view on military-oriented political system and an anti-U.S. sentiment, the two countries have since held military talks regularly.

The last two military talks between the two countries took place in April and October of 2011, during which then top North Korean military chief Ri Yong-ho met Alvaro Lopez Miera, the first-vice minister of the Cuban armed forces.