North Korean cargo ship seizure in Panama

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North Korean cargo ship seizure in Panama
Date 15 July 2013
Location Panama Canal, Panama
9°4′48″N 79°40′48″W / 9.08000°N 79.68000°W / 9.08000; -79.68000Coordinates: 9°4′48″N 79°40′48″W / 9.08000°N 79.68000°W / 9.08000; -79.68000
Result * Seizure of North Korean cargo vessel
  • Confiscation of Cuban military equipment
  • 33 of 35 crew members charged with arms trafficking
  • Ultimately the last crew members were acquitted by Panama's court.[1]
Casualties and losses
None 1 injured

On July 15, 2013, the North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang heading from Havana, Cuba was subject to an anti-drug inspection. Panamanian authorities held the ship because of "undeclared cargo" found aboard, which turned out to be "octagon shaped" equipment, leading the authorities to suspect shipment of weapons. International sanctions today disallow for any weapons to be shipped to North Korea.[2]


Following North Korea's testing of nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and the testing of a ballistic missile in 2012, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094. Amongst other sanctions, the resolutions stipulated that North Korea was banned from importing and exporting weapons and states were required to notify the Security Council before selling arms to North Korea. In addition, the resolutions authorised states to inspect North Korean cargo in their territory that were suspected of carrying military equipment and any such contraband was to be destroyed and the Security Council was to be notified.[3]


AIS disappearance[edit]

On April 12, 2013, the Chong Chon Gang stopped sending signal to the Automatic Identification System. On May 31, it reappeared. The day after, it passed through the Panama Canal and disappeared from the AIS again. It reappeared on July 11. The irregularities of the ship's travel and "unspecified" intelligence prompted Panamanian officials to seize the ship.[4]

Search and confrontation[edit]

Panama completed its search through all 25 containers on August 13.[5] Items found include:[2][6][7]

  • 10,000 tons of sugar
  • 240 metric tons of Cuban-made weapons
  • Radar/control systems for missile launching
  • Two MiG-21 aircraft "in perfect conditions to operate".[8]
  • 15 plane engines
  • 12 motors
  • Live munitions

After the seizure, Cubans officials said that the cargo was sent to North Korea to be repaired and returned.[7]

United Nations officials began investigating August 13, and will start creating a report for the Security Council on August 16.[9]

There was a purportedly violent confrontation between the North Korean crew and the Panamanian officials inspecting the ship. The ship was ordered to un-anchor, but the crew refused. The authorities ended up cutting the anchor and a struggle ensued, during which the North Korean captain had a "heart attack" and attempted to commit suicide.[10]


Panama sought direction from the United Nations on how to handle the situation.[citation needed] 33 of the 35 crew members were charged with arms trafficking. It was not reported why two of the crew members were not charged. Weapons trafficking charges could result in sentences of up to six years if the crew members are tried and convicted.[11] On July 24, the Red Cross stated that "[the crew members] are OK. They are all calm,".[12] A government official stated on August 13 that the crew was likely to be released soon.[13] Panama has since released 32 of the 35 crew members, keeping the captain and two other officers detained on charges of weapons smuggling.[14]


On 28 June 2014, Panama's court acquitted the remaining North Koreans charged and ordered their release. The sugar's cargo have also to be returned while the military cargo it's still confiscated until the legitimate ownership will be proved. [15] [16]

International reaction[edit]

  •  Cuba: Cuba stated that the weapons were being sent to North Korea for repair and would be returned.[7]
  •  North Korea: The North Korean government asked for the crew to be released, but has not commented on the weapons.[7]
  •  United States: There have been calls from the U.S. Congress to not open up ties with Cuba as a result of this incident. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida "... described this week’s incident as “serious and alarming” and a “wake-up call” for the Obama administration to avoid normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba."[2]

Claims of misinformation[edit]

In a congressional testimony held in September 2013, Matt Salmon (R-AZ) claimed that the Cuban government was lying about the content of the military cargo found on board the Chong Chon Gang, noting that the Panamanian authorities found several illicit weapons that were not mentioned in the Cuban Foreign Ministry statement, including rocket-propelled grenades and night vision equipment.[17] However, the Heritage Foundation's Senior Research Fellow for East Asia Bruce Klingner wrote that there was no reason not to take the Cuban Foreign Ministry statement seriously, given that North Korea already has an extensive network of air defenses.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c Castillo, Mariano; Shoichet, Catherine E.; Oppmann, Patrick (17 July 2013). "Cuba: 'Obsolete' weapons on ship were going to North Korea for repair". CNN. Retrieved 18 July 2013. 
  3. ^ Schmitt, Alexandra (March 2013). "UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea". Arms Control Association. Retrieved 18 July 2013. 
  4. ^ "North Korea ship held in Panama has a colorful past". USA Today. July 18, 2013. Retrieved July 18, 2013. 
  5. ^ "Panama finishes search of North Korean vessel". Korea JoongAng Daily. August 13, 2013. Retrieved August 13, 2013. 
  6. ^ Kriel, Lomi. "Panama finds MiG fighter jets on North Korean arms ship". Reuters. Retrieved 21 July 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c d Juan Zamorano (August 3, 2013). "Panama Finds Munitions Aboard N. Korea-Bound Ship". ABC News. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Panama: Cuban weapons aboard NKorean ship in ‘perfect conditions’ to operate". The Washington Post. October 11, 2013. Retrieved October 11, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Panama: UN probes North Korea arms shipment". BBC. August 13, 2013. Retrieved August 14, 2013. 
  10. ^ "‘Violent’ Confrontation on North Korean Ship". WXMI Fox 17 News. 16 July 2013. Retrieved 18 July 2013. 
  11. ^ Carol J. Williams (July 18, 2013). "Panama charges 'contentious' North Korean crew with arms trafficking". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 18, 2013. 
  12. ^ "Red Cross says crew of seized North Korean ship well". July 24, 2013. Retrieved July 24, 2013. 
  13. ^ Lomi Kriel (August 13, 2013). "Panama likely to release crew of detained ship to North Korea: official". Reuters. Retrieved August 14, 2013. 
  14. ^ Castalia Pascual (January 30, 2014). "Panama releases crew of North Korea ship". CNN. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
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