PANAMA CITY -- South Korean officials complained earlier this year that North Korea was smuggling cargo through the Panama Canal, but the complaint was dismissed as the result of the two nations rivalry, a knowledgeable source said Sunday.
Panama government officials also confirmed that a Cuban deputy foreign minister who rushed to Panama after a North Korean ship was seized but before Cuban weapons were found aboard had asserted that there were no drugs aboard and that its only cargo was a humanitarian gift of Cuban sugar to Pyongyang.
Other knowledgeable sources, meanwhile, said the South Koreans complained to the Panamanian government sometime this spring that Pyongyang had been smuggling undeclared shipments through the Canal, which links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
But Panamanian officials did not pay a lot of attention to the complaint, chalking it up to the bitter rivalry between Communist-ruled Pyongyang and democratic Seoul, said the source, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about the issue.
Panama impounded the North Koran-owned bulk freighter Chong Chon Gang on July 10 en route from Havana to Pyongyang and has so far found a dozen metal containers loaded with Cuban weapons systems and two MiG fighters and hidden under 10,000 tons of brown sugar. Some of the weapons were still smelling of gasoline, indicating that they were in use until recently, said drug prosecutor Javier Carballo.
Havana has confirmed the ship carried 240 tons of weapons that were to be refurbished in North Korea and returned to Cuba, but has not addressed the issue of whether the shipment might violate the U.N. arms embargo slapped on Pyongyang in 2006.
A Panamanian gunboat intercepted the freighter based on a tip that it might be carrying drugs. When its crew opposed the search, the freighter was towed to the container port of Manzanillo on the Atlantic coast.
Panamanian government officials, meanwhile, said the Cuban official had urged authorities here to allow the ship and its crew to continue the trip to North Korea, saying that Cuba was certain there were no drugs abroad and the sugar was a gift to Pyongyang.
The Cuban never mentioned any weapons aboard the ship and returned to Havana before the first containers were found, carrying targeting radar for Soviet-designed SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles, said the Panamanians, who also asked to remain anonymous.
Panamanian immigration officials identified the Cuban as Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra Diaz. Efforts to confirm Sierras visit with Havana on Sunday were not successful.
In Panama, a country where politics has long been a contact sport, it was not surprising that the Chong Chon Gang case has unleashed a political row over whether President Ricardo Martinellis government should have stopped and impounded the ship.
We are not policemen, manning a checkpoint at the service of others, columnist Marcel Salamín wrote in the newspaper La Estrella, referring to the perception that the tip to search the freighter must have come from U.S. intelligence services.
Martinelli critics have complained that the ships seizure may have violated the official neutrality of the Canal, that it unnecessarily put the tiny country in the middle3 of an international row and that it might retaliation from the notoriously bellicose North Korea.
La Prensa newspaper columnist Nicanor Alvarado Nixon wrote that unidentified security experts had hinted to him that in fact the ship might have been intercepted by U.S. forces in the Caribbean who then turned it over to Panamanian authorities. But he offered no evidence for his claim.
The freighter had been caught before transporting drugs and small arms ammunition, a source said, and had been raising suspicions more recently by navigating in the Caribbean without its automatic location-reporting system turned on.
Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban intelligence analyst and now a professor of international relations at the University of Denver, wrote in a column that Cubas contraband shipment was a clear violation of the U.N. arms embargo on Pyongyang.
But, he argued, , the Obama administration should use the case to try to pressure Cuba to distance itself from the North Korean regime and increase the isolation of Pyongyang. hat rather than trying to punish Havana
Washington should help the (U.N.) Security Council to obtain from Cuba the utmost cooperation on this incident, so that the North Korean isolation is increased,: he wrote in an online column. To mix that with bilateral U.S.-Cuba issues, he added, could distract the attention from the issue of North Korea and perhaps weaken it.