Another North Korean Ship Made Run to Cuba in 2012
Published: July 17, 2013
An aging North Korean freighter similar to the one impounded by Panama for carrying concealed Cuban military equipment made the same voyage last year without attracting suspicion, passing through the Panama Canal and calling at the same two Cuban ports, an international maritime traffic monitor said on Wednesday.
The New York Times
Panama Seizes Korean Ship, and Sugar-Coated Arms Parts (July 17, 2013)
The monitor, IHS Fairplay, said both vessels — the 390-foot Oun Chong Nyon Ho, which made the voyage last year, and the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang — usually worked much closer to North Korea, making their trans-Pacific trips to Cuba even more unusual.
“They don’t normally make these ocean passages,” Richard Hurley, a senior maritime data specialist at IHS Fairplay, said in a phone interview from the group’s London offices. “It’s intriguing to see two fairly small ships making the same pattern.”
Mr. Hurley said a new review of IHS Fairplay tracking data showed the two freighters were among five North Korean cargo vessels that had traversed the Panama Canal since 2010, underscoring the rarity of North Korean shipping in the area.
The revelation of what Mr. Hurley called a “mirror image” voyage in 2012 by the Oun Chong Nyon Ho added a new twist to the intrigue surrounding the impounded ship, which has been docked at the port of Manzanillo in Panama since Sunday, after a five-day standoff with Panamanian authorities who had requested permission to inspect the cargo.
The ship’s captain and crew were detained at a naval base after they violently resisted a boarding party of Panamanian marines acting on a tip that the ship was carrying contraband.
The marines discovered a load of Russian-built military equipment owned by Cuba, including antiquated Soviet-era radar gear, hidden among more than 200,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar. After two days of silence, Cuba acknowledged the cargo on Tuesday night, describing it as “obsolete defensive weapons” sent to North Korea to be refurbished.
Angry Panamanian officials have protested the attempt to ship the cargo through the canal as a violation of United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea, which has yet to comment publicly on the episode. The shipment also threatens to derail recent efforts by the Cuban government to ease its prolonged estrangement from the United States, where some lawmakers are calling for retribution.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he was aware of the impounded ship’s reported cargo but that it was up to the Security Council’s sanctions committee to determine any violations.
The 35 detained North Koreans, including the captain, who had sought to commit suicide after his ship was impounded, were receiving unspecified medical attention, the Panama prosecutor’s office said Tuesday night. In a possible indication that they might face criminal charges, the office said the crew would be assisted by Panamanian lawyers and interpreters in interrogations.
It was not known what cargo the Oun Chong Nyon Ho might have carried to or from Cuba in 2012. IHS Fairplay’s tracking data showed it made the same Cuban port calls as its impounded sister vessel, stopping first in Havana for a few days in May 2012, then visiting Puerto Padre, a major sugar export point, for five days, then returning to Havana for a stopover of about three weeks before heading home through the Panama Canal.
Mr. Hurley said he could only presume that the Oun Chong Nyon Ho had picked up a load of sugar at Puerto Padre. Sugar is a major Cuban export, but North Korea is not a frequent customer.
José Raúl Mulino, Panama’s minister of security, said on Wednesday that his government had requested help from the United States and Britain in its investigation of the impounded ship.
In an interview on Panama’s TVN-2 television network, Mr. Mulino also disclosed that Cuba had asked Panama to release the ship the day before it was impounded, which surprised him at the time.
“Now I definitely understand, as does anyone who has been following the case, why the captain was so reticent in his cooperation, why the varied efforts at mutiny from the crew,” Mr. Mulino said.