North Korea’s foreign ministry said late on Wednesday that Cuban arms seized from a Pyongyang-flagged ship in Panama’s waters 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 Panama 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.
The North Korean account backs up that of Cuba, which on Tuesday claimed the shipment of 240 metric tonnes of “obsolete defensive weapons” including two anti-aircraft missile systems, as its own.
But Panama has urged UN inspectors to scrutinize the cargo, which could constitute a violation of the strict arms sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear programme.