A UN team is due to arrive in Panama next month to inspect a North Korean ship which was seized carrying arms from Cuba, a potential breach of UN sanctions that the US said was “incredibly concerning.”
The five-member team of UN experts are expected to arrive on Aug. 5 to examine the ship, Panamanian government officials said.
The military cargo is suspected of being in violation of a UN arms embargo that covers all exports by Pyongyang and most imports. North Korea is under a host of UN, US and other sanctions due to repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests since 2006 in defiance of international demands that it stop.
North Korea has asked for the ship and crew to be returned but Panama has not responded, saying that Pyongyang has no official representation in the Central American nation.
“There are no North Koreans in Panama, and we don’t have any plans to respond to them,” Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said.
The US government has strongly backed Panama’s seizure of the ship, the Chong Chon Gang.
“There is a process in place and we are supportive of that process, because the bottom line is that any alleged violation of Security Council sanctions is incredibly concerning to us,” US Department of State spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Panama has been at pains to underline it acted alone in seizing the ship, though security experts say the US, which operated the Panama Canal until a final withdrawal on Dec. 31, 1999, is likely to have provided assistance.
A Panamanian frigate on routine patrol stopped the ship off its Atlantic coast last week and seized its cargo after a tense standoff with the North Korean crew.
The 35 crew members were arrested and charged with attempting to smuggle undeclared arms through the canal.
“No Americans were involved in the operation,” a Panamanian official familiar with the incident said.
Officers on the frigate were alerted by the Chong Chon Gang not issuing a transponder signal as required by maritime law, and suspected it was smuggling drugs, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It was a drug bust that came up with weapons,” the official said.
After an extensive search that took several days authorities discovered the weaponry aboard and Cuba later said it was “obsolete” Soviet-era missile equipment, MiG fighter jets and other arms being sent to North Korea for repair.
Panama has 100 police cadets unloading the sugar in the port of Manzanillo and have so far only cleared one of the four holds, a Panamanian official said.
The UN team had initially planned to arrive on Tuesday but delayed their trip to give Panama more time to empty the cargo.
Earlier on Thursday, Britain’s ambassador to the UN said the UN Security Council sanctions committee would examine the case.
The UN team of investigators heading to Panama will be drawn from a panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to monitor sanctions imposed on North Korea, according to diplomats within the Security Council.