World and Nation

Panama preparing to free most of freighter’s North Korean crew

The authorities in Panama said Monday that they would release 33 of the 35 North Korean crew members of a rusting freighter that was impounded more than three months ago for carrying a secret stash of Soviet-era Cuban military gear hidden under bags of brown sugar.

Neither the captain, who tried to slit his throat when the Panamanian marine police boarded the vessel, nor the captain’s aide are free to go, said a top official at Panama’s Foreign Ministry. The official, who spoke by telephone on the condition of anonymity because of ministry policy, said the two North Koreans had not cooperated and may still face criminal charges.

The Foreign Ministry official said the other crew members had cooperated, and that all of them had asserted that they had no idea the vessel was carrying military cargo.

They have been given travel visas, the official says, but final arrangements for their departure have not been made yet.

The July 14 seizure of the freighter, the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang, near the Panama Canal caused a spat between Panama and North Korea and Cuba, one of the few countries that enjoys cordial relations with the isolated North Korean government.

The seizure shed light on the clandestine maritime trading practices of North Korea, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, hobbled by United Nations sanctions over its nuclear weapons and proliferation activities.

The vessel’s crew, armed with sticks, tried to resist the Panamanian boarding party and disabled the cranes used to unload the cargo hold, piled high with 200,000 bags of sugar.

Underneath, the Panamanians found two disassembled MiG jets, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles. The Cubans acknowledged the military cargo was theirs and said they had been shipping it to North Korea for maintenance.

But the Foreign Ministry official said the parts were in “mint condition,” suggesting that they had been intended for North Korea’s use. The official also said Panama and Cuba had not discussed the military cargo, which remains impounded.

It was unclear what would happen to the Chong Chon Gang, despite demands by North Korea that the ship and entire crew be returned. The Panamanian official said the vessel was “in pretty bad shape after its very own crew damaged it when they saw the police coming.”