Panama says no diplomatic deal on North Korean ship that carried Cuban weapons

Panama is insisting that the case of a North Korean ship carrying contraband Cuban weapons must be handled by the United Nations despite a soothing diplomatic note from Pyongyang, according a Panamanian government official.

The verbal note from Pyongyang’s embassy in Havana noted that the ship did not seek to endanger the security of the Panama Canal and that North Korea hopes for “amiable cooperation” to resolve the case “diplomatically,” the official said.

North Korea also asked in the note Friday that two of its diplomats be allowed into Panama to provide consular services to the 35 crewmen of the freighter Chong Chon Gang, said the official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the case.

The reference to a “diplomatic” resolution of the case was not further detailed in the verbal note, the official said. But Panama’s foreign ministry has made it clear there will be no bilateral Panama-North Korea settlement of the case, he added.

“As long as the case is in the hands of the (Panamanian) Security Ministry and there’s no final report from the United Nations, there is no diplomatic solution,” the official told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Panama City.

One news media report earlier Monday said that the reference to diplomacy meant Pyongyang was suggesting removing the issue out of the hands of the United Nations.

Panama’s Security Ministry seized the freighter last month after reportedly receiving a tip of illegal drugs aboard. Prosecutors charged the crew with threatening the collective security of Panama by not declaring the Cuban weapons as it prepared to cross the Canal.

A team of six U.N. Security Council experts is expected to examine the weapons this week and later will write a report on whether they violate a seven-year-old U.N. ban on arms transfers slapped on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.

Havana has acknowledged the Chong Chon Gang was carrying 240 tons of “obsolete” Cuban weapons to be “repaired” and returned to Cuba, including two MiG jets, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles and parts and two targeting radars.

The weapons were packed in 40-foot shipping containers placed at the bottom of the cargo holds, under 220,000 sacks of brown Cuban sugar that Panamanian officials say was loaded in a way specifically designed to make it difficult to find the contraband.

The 25 containers have been removed from the port to a secure location where the U.N. experts will be able to examine them, Belsio Gonzalez, head of Panama’s air and naval security services, told the Panama News Agency.

Panamanian officials said there have been three diplomatic communications with North Korea, all through Pyongyang’s embassy in Havana, since the freighter was forced to dock at the Manzanillo port on Panama’s Atlantic coast last month.

A first verbal communication in July requested permission for two Pyongyang diplomats to meet with the ship’s crewmen, all North Koreans, and provide them with consular services, the government official said. Panama initially agreed.

But the permission was withdrawn after a North Korean follow up to that communication asked that the diplomats also participate in the inspection of the ship, the official said. Pyongyang around the same time also issued an “aggressive” statement alleging that Panamanian authorities had “used violence” against the crew.

“That was not very diplomatic, so the permission was withdrawn,” he added.

On July 25, Panama sent a communication to North Korea through its embassy in Cuba that officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had met with the crew and reported they were being treated well.

Panama is still considering allowing the North Koreans to visit the crew, the official said. They would fly in from Havana with an ICRC delegation, interview the crew, inspect their quarters and then return to Cuba.

The crewmen are being held in the social building of a base for the air and naval security forces at Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military installation.

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