By Café Fuerte
HAVANA TIMES — This past Wednesday, Washington praised Panamanian authorities for seizing the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang and its illegal cargo of Cuban weapons, calling it a “very important” decision and thanking the country for continued cooperation with the United States.
“[We] have a lot of cooperative efforts with Panama, obviously a critical nation in terms of both its interests, its values, our work we do together, as well as its location,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry during a press conference in Washington. Kerry commended Panamanian authorities for “their very important seizure of a North Korean ship with illicit cargo.”
Kerry also underscored that Panama has been working hard to meet its commitments and to be a cooperative partner of the United States, thanking the country sincerely for this.
The Chong Chon Gang freighter was intercepted by Panamanian naval forces on July 15. On its deck, they found 240 tons of Cuban armaments, buried beneath 10 thousand tons of sugar. The incident sparked off a diplomatic crisis and prompted a UN investigation into a potential violation of the sanctions imposed on North Korea by the Security Council in 2006.
Weapons and Sugar
Panama announced last week that it would release 32 of the 35 crew members and return the freighter to North Korea, but that it would confiscate the weapons and sugar found on board. A UN report on the incident should be issued in coming weeks.
John Kerry’s statements were made during Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nuñez Fabrega’s official three-day visit to Washington.
The government officials addressed such issues as trade relations between the two countries, the broadening of the Panama Canal, the battle against drug trafficking and joint efforts to eliminate the chemical weapons left on Panama’s island of San Jose over five decades ago.
A week after Nuñez’ visit, US Vice-President Joe Biden is scheduled to travel to Panama. Biden is to arrive in Panama City on November 18.
“We have also worked together closely on the issue of how to destroy some old World War II chemical weapons munitions that are on San Jose Island, and we’re working on that issue as well as cooperating on counter-narcotics initiatives,” Kerry pointed out.
Agreement on “Illicit Cargo”
This past Tuesday, Nuñez met in the White House with the Chief of the National Security for the Western Hemisphere Council, Ricardo Zuñiga, and held a meeting with Undersecretary for Justice Kenneth Blanco.
Panama and the United States agreed to create a two-country commission designed to manage illicit goods arising from money laundering operations. The commission is to be made up of three US and three Panamanian officials.
The Panama Canal’s capacity will triple by 2015. This will allow the passage of large-tonnage ships headed for US ports and is expected to increase employment.
The Panamanian foreign minister also suggested “the possibility of making the capture of ships suspected of carrying drugs easier through joint naval operations”, to be conducted in Panamanian waters, through a modification of the Salas-Becker agreement of 2002.
The North Korean vessel, in fact, was captured following receipt of intelligence reports that suggested the presence of drugs on board.