By Lomi Kriel, Reuters
PANAMA CITY — Cuban weapons seized aboard a North Korean ship in Panamanian waters last month are “without doubt” a violation of United Nations sanctions against arms transfers to Pyongyang, Panama said Wednesday, citing a U.N. report. Panamanian authorities say they were given a preliminary report, presented by a panel of experts to the Sanctions Committee at the U.N. Security Council, according to a statement by Panama’s Ministry of Security. “According to the first report presented by the panel of experts from the U.N. Sanctions Committee, the Cuban weapons found in the North Korean ship ‘without doubt’ violate the U.N. sanctions, which validates Panama’s position on how it acted,” the ministry said, citing the report. “The Panel (of Experts) confirmed the Panamanian evaluation that there is a violation of the sanctions regime,” a Security Council diplomat told Reuters. Panamanian officials did not release the preliminary report prepared by the panel, which is an independent body tasked with reporting to the U.N. Security Council. “There are still questions about the Cuban angle in all of this,” another Security Council diplomat said, adding that it “will take time” to clarify the incident. Panamanian investigators detained the Chong Chon Gang last month near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal because they suspected it was carrying drugs. Weapons were found under 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar in sacks. The panel’s findings echo a similar report released Tuesday by a U.S. think tank that concluded the shipment not only breached U.N. sanctions, but was likely meant for Pyongyang’s use, and not destined for Havana as Cuban officials maintained. A team of six U.N. weapons experts has been in Panama investigating whether the weapons violate a 7-year-old U.N. ban on arms transfers to North Korea because of its nuclear weapons and missile development. After the weapons were discovered, Cuba acknowledged it was sending 240 tons of “obsolete” Soviet-era weapons, including two MiG jets, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles, to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba. Cuban officials told Panama the cargo was a donation of sugar for the people of North Korea, according to a senior Panamanian official.
North Korean diplomats, meeting with Panamanian officials Wednesday, declined to comment on the report’s findings. “We’re here to give consular access to our crew, nothing more,” said Ri Il Gyn, one of two officials visiting from North Korea’s Embassy in Havana. Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said the reports justify the Central American country’s actions in detaining the Chong Chon Gang and its 35 sailors. The Cuban weapons shipment, hidden in “deliberately modified” sections of the vessel, appears to be much larger than Havana acknowledged, according to the analysis by 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland. The 38 North analysts based their findings on photographs and reports from Panamanian authorities and the United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime Container Control Program.