North Korean authorities will pay a fine next week to ensure the return of a ship stopped near the Panama Canal with military weapons from Cuba onboard, officials said Thursday.
The settlement should end a protracted dispute over the Chong Chon Gang, a freighter with a crew of 35 intercepted by Panamanian customs officers on July 10 as it tried to enter the canal.
Authorities uncovered 25 containers of military hardware, including two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles, concealed within 200,000 sacks of sugar.
“Over the course of the next week, they have confirmed to us that the [North Korean] Foreign Ministry will pay to free the sailors and the ship,” Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez told reporters.
Panama, which is holding the North Korean ship’s 35-strong crew at a former US naval base, initially imposed a million-dollar penalty on the communist state.
Bu the amount was reduced to US$666,666 (two-thirds of the initial fine) after North Korean officials admitted to having given a false statement on the ship’s load and agreed to pay.
The crew members face a possible sentence of 12 years in prison for arms trafficking, although Nunez anticipated prosecutors would free 32 of them who did not know the content of the load.
Nunez said the North Koreans would be released “immediately” after the fine is paid.
But the sailors’ lawyer Julio Berrios said: “I have not been informed of this, and I don’t know where Nunez got this information.”
The lawyer called for the entire crew to be released, saying none of them knew the content of the shipment, which was loaded by Cubans in Havana.
He has previously said Panama was using the crew members to exert pressure on North Korea to pay the fine, which Pyongyang had initially promised to pay between late November and early December.
Both Havana and Pyongyang said the weapons aboard the freighter were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.
Panama, however, said the shipment violated the UN arms embargo against North Korea.
And in August, the Panamanian government said the United Nations had determined that the weapons were an infringement on sanctions imposed over the reclusive North’s nuclear weapons program.
The UN has yet to make an official determination on the shipment.