Detained North Korean sailors released after Panama arms-smuggling flap

32 North Korean crew set to head to Cuba, but three officers will remain to face weapons trafficking charges

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 2:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 6:33pm

Thirty-two sailors held since July after their North Korean ship tried to move undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal will head to Cuba on Thursday, their attorney said.

“The North Koreans have been released and they are leaving Fort Sherman”, the US base in Panama where they had been held since charges against them were dropped January 28, Julio Berrios said on Tuesday.

“They are getting back on the Chong Chon Gang where they will stay until Thursday, when they will set sail for Cuba.”

The Chong Chon Gang freighter was stopped on July 10 on suspicion of carrying drugs as it tried to enter the busy waterway linking the Caribbean and Pacific.

A search by Panamanian authorities uncovered 25 containers of Cuban military hardware, including two Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.

Both Havana and Pyongyang said the weapons were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.

More than 200,000 sacks of sugar concealed the weapons. Neither country has explained why the shipment was hidden if it was indeed legitimate.

After a reduction of the original million-dollar penalty for the attempt, which may have violated UN sanctions, Pyongyang paid a US$693,333.10 fine on Saturday, according to canal administrator Jorge Quijano.

Panama’s government had asked the United Nations to send a mission to determine whether the shipment violated the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

Last month, Panamanian authorities dropped charges against 32 of the 35 North Koreans.

The remaining three – the vessel’s captain, first officer and political secretary – face trial on arms trafficking charges.