HAVANA TIMES — The North Korean cargo ship “Chong Chon Gang”, released after paying a fine of $693,333 to the Panama Canal Authority, sailed today at 13:30 GMT from Colon City, in the Panamanian Caribbean, bound for Cuba.
The departure was confirmed on Saturday via a statement from the Panamanian Foreign Affairs Ministry. The vessel had been detained last July with a load of hidden undeclared Cuban weapons, reported dpa news.
The Foreign Ministry said that representatives from the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Havana with staff of the Panamanian Immigration Service and the Foreign Ministry, arrived Tuesday at the base of the National Air Service in Colon, where the ship’s crew was located, to verify that everything was in order.
“In the case of the Chong Chon Gang, Panama acted correctly and the United Nations endorsed the effort made by our country in accordance with international rules and multilateral obligations,” said Panamanian Foreign Minister Francisco Alvarez De Soto on Saturday.
“From a humanitarian point of view, the crew received all the appropriate assistance,” said the Foreign Minister.
“The ship travels to Cuba for repairs and to pick up a cargo of sugar to be transported to North Korea,” said Julio Berrios, a Panamanian lawyer who legally represents the North Korean crew.
Berrios called “arbitrary” the detention of the 35 member crew since July 10, 2013, when the ship, coming from Cuba, was stopped by police on suspicion of drug trafficking before it could cross the Panama Canal.
“In the incident with the vessel even the ship’s doctor was arrested without cause,” said Berrios.
The Panamanian public prosecutor opened a criminal case against the ship’s captain and two other officers arrested for allegedly trafficking undeclared weapons of war and “illegal possession of weapons.”
Aboard the “Chong Chon Gang” were found 10,000 tons of sugar and 25 containers in which there were 240 tons of weapons, including two Volga anti-aircraft rockets and nine Pechora rockets in parts and pieces, two Mig-21 Bis aircraft and 15 aircraft engines.
Cuba’s government argued that the freight was “obsolete defensive weaponry” but a mission of UN experts traveled to Panama to examine the cargo and a prelimnary report determined that it violated the international embargo on North Korea importing or exporting weapons.
Attorney Berrios said a claim filed for the return of the confiscated sugar load, which has a value in the international market for five million dollars, still needs to be addressed.
Panamanian authorities announced that the shipments of sugar will be auctioned, but Berrios said the issue could become a matter of international dispute between Pyongyang and Panama, because the sugar belongs to the North Koreans.