North Korea pays hefty fine in Panama over Cuba missile mini-crisis

April 24, 2014

PANAMA CITY — North Korea paid a fine Saturday for trying to ship undeclared Cuban arms through the Panama Canal, possibly in violation of UN sanctions, authorities said.

After a reduction of the original $1 million penalty, Pyongyang paid $693,333.10, said canal administrator Jorge Quijano.

“They just paid the fine in cash,” he added. “So the ship is free to set sail.”

The ship is returning to Cuba, Quijano said. He said the fine had been reduced because North Korea accepted the Canal Authority’s statement saying they endangered the waterway, and gave false information about the shipment.

The North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang was stopped on July 10 on suspicion of carrying drugs as it tried to enter the busy canal shortcut linking the Caribbean and Pacific.

Panamanian authorities’ search uncovered 25 containers of Cuban military hardware, including two Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.

Both Havana and Pyongyang said the weapons aboard the freighter were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.

More than 200,000 sacks of sugar concealed the weapons. Neither country has explained why the shipment was hidden if it was indeed legitimate.

Panama’s government had asked the United Nations to send a mission to determine whether the shipment violated the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

Last month, Panamanian authorities released 32 of the 35 North Koreans detained since July.

The remaining three North Koreans — the vessel’s captain, first officer and political secretary — face trial on arms trafficking charges.

“The vessel will leave with the 32 North Korean shipmen who were released at the latest by late next week,” said Julio Berrios, an attorney for the North Koreans.

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