July 18, 2013 8:46 am

North Korea condemns ‘violent’ ship seizure

A police officer stands guard as investigation officers look inside a container holding military equipment aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang in Panama on July 17 2013©AP

A police officer stands guard as investigation officers look inside a container holding military equipment aboard the Chong Chon Gang

Pyongyang has condemned Panama’s “violent” seizure of a North Korean ship carrying weapons from Cuba and demanded the release of the vessel and crew.

Panamanian authorities on Monday said the Chong Chon Gang that was seized en route from Cuba was carrying arms concealed under a consignment of sugar.

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On Wednesday, North Korea said the ship was carrying “ageing weapons which are to [be sent] back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract”. The day before, Havana said the cargo included 10,000 tonnes of sugar and 240 tonnes of “obsolete, defensive” arms, including rockets and MiG-21 fighter jets.

Panama has asked the UN Security Council to investigate whether the shipment contravenes sanctions that prohibit arms trading with North Korea.

Pyongyang on Thursday expressed outrage at Panama’s actions and urged the government to “let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay”. The seizure of the vessel prompted a scuffle with its 35-strong crew and the attempted suicide of its captain, according to Panama.

“The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of a ‘drug investigation’ and searched its cargo but did not discover any drugs,” North Korea said. “Yet, they are justifying their violent action.”

A UN Security Council resolution issued after Pyongyang’s 2006 nuclear test bars member states from allowing the “supply, sale or transfer” to North Korea of arms, including combat aircraft, missiles or missile systems.

The US and its allies have repeatedly voiced concerns about North Korean trading in arms and military technology to earn foreign currency. Pyongyang is accused of extensive co-operation with nuclear weapons programmes in Syria and Iran.

However, Cuba’s statement on Tuesday appeared to argue that the shipment did not constitute a breach of UN sanctions because the weapons were not being transferred to North Korea but sent there temporarily for maintenance.

Phillip Park, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said that the shipment of sugar was not economically significant even by North Korean standards and that the offer to perform maintenance on the Cuban arms was probably motivated by a desire to strengthen relations with Havana.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University, said Pyongyang’s ability to make money from weapons trading was also limited by the increasing outdatedness of its military assets and technology.

“They have a niche market of . . . cheap copies of outdated Chinese and Russian systems. Not many people are interested in those assets these days.”

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