WASHINGTON - The Cuban foreign ministry has acknowledged that a North Korean ship seized near the Panama Canal was carrying a shipment of weapons from Cuba.
It says the so-called “obsolete” weaponry included anti-aircraft missile batteries, disassembled rockets, and other military equipment that was being sent to North Korea for repair.
Panamanian authorities stopped the ship on suspicion it was carrying drugs. They instead found Monday what they have described as “sophisticated missile equipment” hidden in a shipment of brown sugar.
Officials say the ship’s captain attempted suicide and its 35 crew members were detained after refusing to cooperate. It could take days for Panama to inspect the weaponry.
The case could be handed over to U.N. officials to investigate whether the shipment violates sanctions barring North Korea from buying or selling ballistic missile or nuclear technology.
Brad Glosserman is an analyst with the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum. He said the incident may show the effectiveness behind the sanctions, which were expanded following the North’s third nuclear test in February.
”I think we should be taking some comfort in the notion that other countries are getting serious about trying to put the squeeze on North Korea and trying to convince them that they need to be better citizens,” said Glosseman.
Stephen Noerper with the New York-based Korea Society agrees that inspection of North Korea’s international shipping may be getting stronger following the sanctions expansion.
But he said the shipment shows that North Korea remains a threat to the international community, even if the equipment is “very outdated.”
”It doesn’t take modern equipment to create destruction and to create fear, as we saw in 2010 with the sinking of the (South Korean Navy ship) Cheonan,” he said.
Noerper also believes it is not likely that Cuba was sending the weaponry to North Korea for repairs, as the Cuban foreign ministry suggested.
The United States says it “strongly supports” Panama’s seizure of the ship. State Department Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. stands ready to cooperate with Panama if it requests help.
Ventrell said the ship, known as the Chong Chon Gang, has a history of involvement in drug smuggling. He said the U.S. is in touch with Panama and is still gathering information on the exact contents of the ship.
Communist Cuba is one of few allies of North Korea, which is isolated from much of the international community in part because of its nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
Source: VOA News