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Panama Ignores North Korean Demand, Charges Ship's Crew

The Panamanian government on Thursday set aside the demands of Pyongyang and filed criminal charges against all 35 crew members of the North Korean freighter that was caught earlier this week attempting to smuggle Soviet-era weapons through the Panama Canal, the New York Times reported.

The North Korean crew is being held in detention in Panama and is not responding to questions. An initial search of the hold of the Chong Chon Gang ship has turned up seemingly obsolete missile, radar and airplane parts that were buried under many pounds of sugar, which appear to have been Cuba's payment for an agreement with Pyongyang to retrofit and return the old weapons.

Just one of the ship's four holds has been fully unloaded, an unidentified Panamanian official told Reuters.

A team of U.N. investigators with expertise on the international sanctions regime that covers North Korea is slated to travel to Panama in early August to scrutinize the freighter. Panama City has asked that the Security Council investigate the trafficking incident.

North Korea is under rigorous Security Council sanctions that prohibit the East Asian nation from engaging in any overseas weapons commerce.

Washington has been supportive of Panama City's actions this week.

"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," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a news briefing.

Havana has claimed ownership of the freighter's military equipment, describing them as "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" that were being transported to North Korea "to be repaired and returned to Cuba," CNN reported.

The case of the Chong Chon Gang is illustrative of the lengths that Pyongyang has had to go to find international trade, as so many legal commerce activities are closed off to it by the sanctions regime, Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday.

Pyongyang has grown to prefer bartering with foreign nations as such trade does not leave a monetary trail and does not require foreign currency, which North Korea has in very short supply, according to researchers.

"Attention focuses on North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities and its nuclear capabilities, but most of its foreign trade is actually in conventional arms with a small group of countries," Stockholm International Peace Research Institute weapons smuggling analyst Hugh Griffiths said.

Many of the nations the North has traded with in the past are similarly impoverished; they include Eritrea, Myanmar and Yemen, according to Griffiths.

Cuba could be punished for its role in the smuggling incident as the arms deal did not have a waiver by the Security Council sanctions panel, an anonymous U.S. envoy told the Wall Street Journal. If Havana is found to have violated the sanctions, some Cuban officials might be barred from foreign travel and see their assets frozen.

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