Friday, August 30, 2013

North Korean Ship Carrying Cuban Arms Intercepted by Panama

By Emily Keyes, PMM Editorial Intern

An incident involving the transportation of Cuban owned Soviet-era weapons aboard a shady North Korean flagged vessel that was detained by Panamanian officials, complete with a rioting crew and suicidal captain, sounds more like a film plot for a movie during the Cuban Missile Crisis than a news brief in 2013. (Warning the following is not a screenplay for the next Hollywood hit movie.)

The North Korean flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang, which had left the Russian Pacific in June, drew suspicion and international surveillance as she made her voyage through the Panama Canal and then “disappeared” on her way to Cuba, as a result of the vessel’s satellite tracking system being intentionally shut off, only to reappear at the Panama Canal on July 10, 2013.

The Chong Chon Gang has a checkered past of illegal drug and arms trafficking in states such as Iran, Ukraine, and Syria. Once the vessel reached the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal Panamanian authorities boarded the vessel on the suspicion that the vessel was carrying illegal drugs.

The crew violently resisted the boarding, and even tried sabotaging their own ship by cutting the cables on the onboard cranes used to offload the vessel, raising even more suspicion. The captain attempted suicide by trying cut his own throat. No drugs were found, but Soviet-era arms were found buried under 200,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar that had to be offloaded by hand. Panamanian officials seized the vessel and the 35 crewmen were detained, and later charged with threatening Panamanian national security.

After two days of silence, Cuba acknowledged that among the cargo was 240 tons of “obsolete defensive weapons” that belonged to Cuba but was being sent to North Korea for refurbishment. Among the “obsolete” arms were two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for the airplanes.

The President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, posted a photo on the social media site “Twitter” of the undeclared weapons, and Panama has formally asked for assistance from the United States, Great Britain and the United Nations in handling the incident.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on North Korea because of their nuclear weapons and missile-development programs. The UN currently has international sanctions against North Korea to prohibit the sale, transfer or maintenance of most arms and related material to, and from, North Korea. Small arms and light weapons are exempt from those bans.

The United Nations Security Council will hear the case on whether there was a breach of the arms embargo. US officials say the shipment violates UN sanctions against North Korea. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida called the situation a “wake-up call” and Senator Marco Rubio (R) of Florida said the weapons shipment was a “flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions.” It is unknown what, if anything, was unloaded in Cuba from the Chong Chon Gang. Some analysts suspect that North Korea is supplying Cuba with missiles. With Cuba just 90 miles from the US coastline, the relationship between the two communist states is of great concern.

The President of Panama has said “the world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.”

Emily Keyes is a third year Global Studies & Maritime Affairs student at California Maritime Academy and an editorial intern at Pacific Maritime Magazine.