North Korea on Thursday for the first time spoke out about the recent high-profile seizure of one of its ships as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal carrying an illegal shipment of Cuban-owned aging weapons, whose transport Pyongyang defended as a legitimate business activity, Reuters reported.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Panamanian officials of acting "rashly" last week when they ordered the seizure, boarding, and search of the Chong Chon Gang and the detention of its captain and crew.
An initial inspection of the freighter's hold turned up at least two containers filled with seemingly obsolete Soviet-era weapons. Havana has claimed ownership of the arms, which reportedly include parts for air-defense systems, disassembled rockets, and Mig fighter plane components. Cuba said the Chong Chon Gang was transporting the arms to North Korea where they were to be retrofitted and then returned to the island nation.
The North backed up this version of events. "This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," the North Korean spokesman said in a statement carried by state-controlled news media.
Pyongyang called for the immediate release of the ship and its crew.
Some defense specialists have speculated that the North was attempting to acquire the weapons and so the story about retrofitting and returning them to Cuba is a lie.
Had the weapons shipment gone undiscovered, it would not have had much of an impact on international security, according to Cuba Research Center analyst Philip Peters. "Based on what we know, the military impact seems to be negligible. This material has nothing to do with the international community's core concern about North Korea, which is nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles," he told Reuters in a separate report.
The Cubans weapons are of a "staggeringly old vintage," said Royal Military College of Canada professor Hal Klepak.
The Chong Chon Gang is not the first North Korean-flagged vessel to have sailed to Cuba and then to the Panama Canal, the New York Times reported. In 2012 the freighter, Oun Chong Nyon Ho, successfully traveled the same route, according to the international maritime traffic monitor IHS Fairplay. That vessel's cargo both to and from Cuba is unknown.
The two North Korean vessels "don't normally make these ocean passages. It's intriguing to see two fairly small ships making the same pattern," IHS Fairplay senior data researcher Richard Hurley said in an interview.
Specialists note that the North is skilled at fixing and modernizing Soviet-age weapons and the impoverished country has a history of exchanging its technical services in this area for goods such as the bulk sugar the Chong Chon Gang was found to be transporting along with the arms, the Associated Press reported.
"The North Koreans have a track record of actually doing this. Upgrading, servicing and repairing, that's what the North Koreans do," said Stockholm International Peace Research Institute weapons smuggling analyst Hugh Griffiths.
Pyongyang is also interested in acquiring extra components for its own aged military systems, especially Mig fighter planes.
"We think it is credible that [Cuba] could be sending some of these systems for repair and upgrade work," IHS Jane's Intelligence researcher Neil Ashdown said. "But equally there is stuff in that shipment that could be used in North Korea and was not going back."
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Martin Nesirky said if the details of the ship's cargo are confirmed, then the incident would constitute "a breach of the sanctions regime" over North Korea, which for years has been under strong U.N. Security Council sanctions that bar the nation from engaging in all international weapons commerce.
The ultimate determination of a sanctions violation is up to the Security Council, Nesirky said.
"It looks like it was definitely a violation of the U.N. sanctions," according to Griffiths. "It is military equipment prohibited under U.N. sanctions so whether payment is made in the form of barter trade or foreign currency it still constitutes a violation."
Panama on Wednesday said it had requested a Security Council probe into the trafficking incident, according to a Reuters report. "It's going to be transferred to the U.N. Security Council. They will decide what to do," Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said.
A five-member team of U.N. specialists is anticipated to travel to the Central American country close to the start of next month after all of the Chong Chon Gang's cargo has been taken off the ship, Panamanian officials said. The search of the ship's hold has turned up two more containers that could be holding weapons.
Meanwhile, all 33 members of the North Korean crew are refusing to answer the Panamanian government's questions.