Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Freight Vessel Still Held for Shipping Undeclared Containers of Arms Cargo via Panama Canal

Huge Fine Threatened whilst Ship and Crew Remain in Limbo
Shipping News Feature

PANAMA – CUBA – NORTH KOREA – Amidst the commencement of celebrations to mark the centenary of one of the world’s key freight arteries next year, the news that the Panama Canal Authority is considering fining North Korea ‘up to $1 million’ for carrying an undeclared cache of containers containing arms in transit from Cuba, has brought mixed reaction from around the globe. North Korean shipping using the canal is a rarity with only four transits reported for vessels flagged there in the past two years, and as such, any ship was bound to attract attention.

The freighter Chong Chon Gang was seized before entering the Canal on July 10 after a search of its cargo of sugar was found to contain more than two dozen shipping containers of military hardware buried beneath the freight declared on the manifest. Despite this lack of clarity when notifying the Panamanians of the transit, both Havana and Pyongyang subsequently stated that the items, which apparently included anti-missile parts and equipment, two Soviet era MiG 21’s and various command and control equipment, were being returned to North Korea for repair and refurbishment.

There is no problem carrying munitions and items associated with warfare through the canal, provided all goods are declared prior to transit. The UN Security Council despatched a team to Panama following the find to decide if the items discovered break the arms embargo which currently exists. In a fourth round of new terms to sanctions applicable to North Korea following its recent nuclear testing, the UN decreed in March that any country was authorised to stop and search any vessel bound from, or headed for the country, if it possessed ‘credible intelligence’ that arms might be aboard.

Experts speculate that the out of date equipment was either for return to Cuba following updating, or retention by Pyongyang to bolster its own defence capabilities. Panama has been accused by some overseas countries as acting as a puppet of the United States in the matter, but Panama Canal administrator Jorge Quijano, who announced the possibility of the huge fine, said this was a very serious case of illegal arms trafficking and any penalty would be for the offence of flagrantly violating the country’s security and safe passage through the Canal.

The ship remains under seizure whilst the matter is decided and additionally both the master, and the entire ships crew have been charged with offences relating to the illegality of the consignment. Some reports say that the ships master both attempted suicide and had a heart attack during the raid by Panamanian Customs whilst the crew fought with officials, and that the authorities were acting on a tip off that the ship might be carrying drugs or other contraband. The shipment seemingly left Cuba at the time of a visit to the island by a North Korean General, Kim Kyok Sik when he met with President Raoul Castro.

Photo: Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli peers into the gloom of a container containing anti-aircraft radar equipment. The huge weight of the cargo of sugar has apparently crushed the roof of the box downward.