Panama Continues to Search Seized North Korean Arms-smuggling Ship
Four days have passed since Panamanian authorities discovered undeclared military weapons hidden aboard a North Korean ship, and the painstaking process of examining the entire vessel is crawling at a snail’s pace.
The ship has five cargo holds, only one of which has been emptied as of Thursday.
“The technicians on board have told us that this cargo was loaded in a way that makes it difficult to unload,” Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said.
The North Korean crew had resisted the Panamanian authorities and cut the cables to the onboard cranes. Panamanian investigators brought their own cranes, but removing the containers inside the cargo holds has been an “odyssey,” Mulino said.
The ship originated in Cuba, and the Cubans have admitted to owning the military equipment, claiming it was being sent to North Korea to be repaired and returned.
But many questions remain. If the weapons were not a secret, why were they hidden under sacks of sugar? Why the did the captain attempt to commit suicide?
A public prosecutor is charging the captain and 35 North Korean crew members with illegal possession of weapons and international arms trafficking, Panamanian government spokesman Eduardo Camacho said.
North Korean officials, meanwhile, asked for Panama to release the cargo ship and let the crew go.
Panama has formally asked the United Nations for guidance on how to handle the case.
“For us, it is important to finish this operation, wait for the United Nations to come, and they will decide” how to proceed, Mulino said. “Panama is completely transparent in this; we have no experience in dealing with this type of problem.”