By Connor Carragher,
International News Writer
After seizing a North Korean cargo ship filled with Soviet-era military equipment and aircraft parts, Panama has agreed to release all but two of the crew members involved. According to the Panamanian government, the North Korean ship was making its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere in four years. Authorities knew the ship had docked in Havana, Cuba so they were on the lookout for illegal activity from the onset. According to the New York Times, “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.”
Although the Panamanians were expecting to find illicit narcotics aboard the ship, they encountered something even more sinister. As police searched the ship for evidence, they detected a large mass underneath tons of Cuban rice. There they found two disassembled MIG fighter jets and other military equipment. Initial analyses showed that the material was useless and incredibly out of date. Indeed the Cuban government issued a statement explaining the equipment. “The agreements Cuba has signed in these areas are based on our need to maintain our defensive capacity to protect national sovereignty,” the statement said.
Nonetheless, a more rigorous investigation showed that the bulk of the cargo was in mint condition and ready to be used upon assembly. Even though the Cuban government refused to comment further, it would appear as though the material was intended for military use by the North Korean government. In addition to posing a security threat to the United States and allies abroad, the shipment of arms overseas between Cuba and North Korean for purposes of advancing military technology may violate United Nations sanctions.
“The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” said Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s President.
As for the crew of the sequestered vessel, most will be allowed to return back to North Korea. The two crew members who will remain in Panama are the captain and his aide. After three months of questioning, the Panamanian government has concluded that the two highest ranking members were the only ones who knew the nature of the hidden cargo. The process of determining culpability was rather difficult due to the fact that when the Panamanian agents boarded the ship, the entire North Korean crew rioted. According to sources, they attempted to fight off authorities with wooden sticks. The captain himself faked a heart attack during the raid, and he later attempted suicide. Fortunately, Panamanian authorities were able to subdue the captain and bring him into custody unharmed.
Although most of the North Koreans have been let go, relations between Panama and Cuba have grown worse in the months since the initial incursion in July. Panamanian calls for information from Cuba have gone unmet.
Furthermore, the Cuban government maintains its position that the equipment was not for military use and that it was only meant to be refurbished in North Korea and subsequently sent back to the Caribbean.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 29 print edition.
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