Last week the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang was seized by Panamanian authorities in the Panama Canal and obsolete Soviet-produced weapons were found on board. Panamanian authorities allegedly seized the ship as a result of the crew’s failure to respond to attempts at communication, under suspicions of drug shipping which it had been caught doing before.
The Cuban foreign ministry have come out and stated that the vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of “obsolete” defensive weapons belonging to them – two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines. All of the above were produced mid-20th century, and were hidden amongst 10,000 tonnes of sugar. North Korean foreign ministry confirmed this, and stated that the cargo of “ageing” and undeclared Cuban arms was being sent for repairs in North Korea and would be returned to Cuba under a legitimate contract.
However, Panamanian authorities claim that there has been a breach of sanctions against North Korea, as international weapons’ sanctions have prohibited the supply of arms to Pyongyang as disputes over its controversial nuclear programme continue to cause tensions. On top of these cargo violations, the crew and captain, who attempted to commit suicide during the raid, of the ship are to be charged with threatening Panama’s internal security.
Panamanian authorities claim that there has been a breach of sanctions against North Korea
Panama initially seized the ship following its disappearance off the automatic tracking systems inside the Panama Canal. These reports indicate that the North Korean crew may have switched off the system which is meant to communicate details of their exact location.
North Korea has urged Panama to immediately release the ship as well as the crew. North Korea’s foreign ministry holds that the ship was initially seized under suspicion of drug trafficking, but as no drugs have been discovered, they urge Panama to release the crew. Panama maintains that the arms found on board were undeclared. Following the initial incident two more containers were found on Wednesday.
Today, the 50 mile long Panama Canal is used by about 13,000 vessels a year from 160 different countries, serving 1,700 ports worldwide. Given its strategic location, this incident increases tensions on a global scale, as sources describe it as a dramatic scene from the cold war. It also confirms a fear that Cuba remains a threat to the United States and its allies, albeit Cuba’s recent attempts to convince the US to drop trade and travel sanctions against the island, and renewal of migration talks.