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Panama awaits international experts to check weapons on North Korea ship seized at the Panama Canal

PANAMA CITY Panama on Wednesday awaited the arrival of U.S. and British experts to inspect Cuban weapons found aboard a North Korean ship, as Seoul urged the United Nations to investigate.

Cuban officials in Havana said the arms discovered on the vessel near the Panama Canal among tons of sugar were “obsolete” Soviet-era missiles and parts it had sent back to Pyongyang for repair.

But Panama has urged U.N. inspectors to scrutinize the cargo, which could constitute a violation of the strict arms sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear program.

“The cargo is illegal because it was not declared. Anything that is not logged, even if it is obsolete, is contraband,” Panamanian Public Security Minister José Raúl Mulino said.

“We are awaiting the arrival of experts from the United States and Britain, per our request, as well as a technical team from the U.N. Security Council,” he added.

Panama said Monday it had discovered military equipment, which it believed to be missiles, after impounding the vessel and conducting a drugs search.

On Tuesday, Cuba, one of North Korea’s few allies, claimed the shipment as its own, with the Foreign Ministry listing 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons,” including two anti-aircraft missile systems, as being on board.

There were also “nine missiles in parts and spares,” various Mig-21 aircraft parts and 15 plane motors, “all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century” and “to be repaired and returned to Cuba.”

“The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty,” the ministry said in an English-language statement.

Panama President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a photo of the haul, which experts earlier Tuesday identified as an ageing Soviet-built radar control system for surface-to-air missiles. Martinelli’s government said the munitions were hidden in a shipment of 220,000 pounds of bagged sugar aboard the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said late Wednesday that Cuban arms were part of a legitimate deal and demanded the immediate release of the ship, state media reported.

“This cargo is nothing but ageing weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract,” the Korea Central News Agency quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying, adding: “The Panamanian authorities should take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay.”

The ministry said Panamanian authorities had “rashly attacked” the captain of the Chong Chon Gang after demanding to search its cargo hold for drugs, which were not found on board.

“Yet, they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kind of cargo aboard the ship,” the ministry added.

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