North Korea calls for Panama to release cargo ship crew

Partial view of North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang at Manzanillo harbor in Colon, Panama.
(Rodrigo Arangua / AFP/Getty Images)
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MEXICO CITY — North Korean officials on Wednesday called for Panama to release the crew members of a cargo ship being detained while authorities search it for Cuban missile components and other war materiel.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the crew should be released because Panamanian authorities were looking for drugs, but had not found any, according to news reports.

The Chong Chon Gang container ship remained docked on the Caribbean coast of Panama on Wednesday.


Jose Raul Mulino, Panama’s security minister, said in a TV interview that his country was awaiting the arrival of experts from the U.S. and Britain who could evaluate the “enormous quantity of armaments” involved.

Panamanian authorities had initially suspected that drugs were aboard the ship, but on Monday they discovered the undeclared components of a Soviet-era missile system.

The Cuban government Tuesday acknowledged that the missile components were its property. It said that missiles, as well as two MIG fighter jets and 15 jet motors, were also on board. Officials said in a statement that the Soviet-era components were being sent to North Korea for repairs and affirmed Cuba’s “commitment” to international law.

Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly said Wednesday that while many questions about the case remained unanswered, the transfer of weapons appeared to be in violation of international sanctions. The U.N. Security Council has passed numerous resolutions since 2006 that prohibit the export of arms and military equipment to North Korea in response to the country’s development of a nuclear weapons program.

Mulino said the fate of the crew probably will be determined by the United Nations. “It will be the United Nations Security Council that will give its opinion, and Panama will abide, as it has always done,” he said.

The ship was detained July 10. On Saturday, two days before the arms were discovered, a Cuban official asked Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli to set the ship free, Mulino said.


Mulino said that at the time the Cubans didn’t mention the military cargo the Chong Chon Gang was carrying.

North Korea, which is increasingly isolated in the world community, has been open in recent months about seeking to strengthen its ties with its communist counterparts in Cuba.

The information services company IHS said that a second North Korean ship made a similar journey to Cuba in May 2012 and was last seen heading in the direction of the North Korean port of Nampo.


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Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.