U.N. investigators visited Cuba to discuss N. Korean freighter

A team of United Nations experts was in Havana last week to talk about the Cuban weaponry found aboard a North Korea-bound freighter this summer, showing that Cuban officials have at agreed to discuss the shipment, according to a Japanese media report.

Luxembourg Ambassador Sylvie Lucas, chair of the U.N. Security Council committee that supervises sanctions on North Korea, told the Japanese Kyodo News Service that the team of experts who advise the committee had returned from Cuba on Friday.

Kyodo quoted Lucas as saying that the team went to Cuba for “consultations on the consignments discovered” on the North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang.

She gave no other details, but the visit clearly signaled that the Cuban government has been cooperating with the U.N. inquiry into the case since the experts could not have flown to Havana without government approval.

The team is headed by Martin Uden, a former British ambassador to North Korea. He was not available for comment on this story.

The Chong Chon Gang was seized by Panama authorities in July on a tip that it was carrying illegal drugs as it prepared to cross the Panama Canal on a voyage from Cuba to North Korea. Instead, searchers uncovered Cuban weaponry hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar.

Havana later confirmed the ship carried 420 tons of weapons but claimed it was “obsolete” equipment on its way to North Korea to be upgraded and returned to Cuba. Independent reports said some of the weaponry was in “mint” condition.

North Korea has not cooperated with the U.N. investigators and does not recognize the sanctions the Security Council slapped on the Pyongyang government beginning in 2006 for its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.

The usual procedure for the experts would be to complete their investigation and later write an “incident report” for the committee. The experts have no deadlines for either their investigations or the incident reports.

Incident reports can recommend that the committee designate people, enterprises or countries as suspected sanctions violators, according to Security Council diplomats. Such recommendations, however, are usually reserved for those involved in a pattern of violations rather than one-off cases.

The 508-foot Chong Chon Gang, flagged in North Korea, carried three anti-aircraft missile and radar systems, two MiG-21 fighter jets and 16 engines for the MiGs as well as artillery and anti-tank munitions when it was intercepted in Panama.

North Korean shipping officials had declared that the freighter carried only sugar as it prepared to transit the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific. Canal regulations require all ships to declare any weapons or explosives on board.

Panama authorities said last week that they plan to free all but two of the freighter’s 35 North Korean crew members, who have been detained since July, because they claim that they did not know the ship carried weaponry. Only the captain and his top aide will continue in detention.

The freighter, the weaponry and the sugar remain under Panamanian control

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