Panama said Wednesday that it will place the task of evaluating the undeclared weaponry found in a North Korean cargo ship, which Cuba admitted belonged to it but said was "obsolete," in the hands of the U.N. Security Council.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nuñez also announced that his government had authorized the issuance of two visas for North Korean diplomats so that they may come to Panama to "provide explanations and inspect" the vessel, which is being held in port.
"We've just authorized two visas for representatives of the Republic of Korea, through our embassy in Havana ... We have (provided them) so that they may come with an eye toward providing explanations and inspecting their ship," the foreign minister said in an official statement.
Panama and North Korea do not have any direct diplomatic or commercial relations.
Panamanian government officials told Efe that North Korea asked to be present during the inspections that are expected to be made of the weaponry the ship was carrying at the end of this month by U.N. personnel.
Panamanian authorities are holding the Chong Chon Gang, on board which on Monday they found hidden in containers weaponry that Havana described as aging equipment on its way to North Korea for refurbishment.
The weapons were hidden amid 10,000 sacks of sugar, which was the only cargo the vessel had declared, and were found during a routine check for illegal drugs.
Panama's security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, characterized as "not very transparent" Cuba's actions in asking the Panamanian government on Saturday, before the weapons had been found, to release the cargo ship without revealing that it was carrying military equipment.
He also said that any items that are "not listed on a shipping manifest (are) either contraband or (are) illicit," and he thus dismissed the argument that because the weapons are Havana's and are obsolete that should resolve the situation.
Political scientist Nils Castro said Cuba was wrong to send a "shipment of this kind" without declaring it, even though the shipment may contain obsolete equipment in poor condition.
"The first irregularity is that the nature of the shipment was not declared, something that was even more necessary because this is a ship with the flag of North Korea, which is a country sanctioned by the United Nations," Castro told Efe.
Mulino said on Wednesday that Panama is maintaining its position that U.N., U.S., and British experts will be the ones who will "evaluate the enormous quantity of armaments" found on board the Chong Chon Gang.
After the weapons were found, the Cuban government admitted that the vessel was transporting 240 metric tons of "obsolete" defensive weaponry - including two anti-aircraft batteries, nine disassembled rockets and their parts, two Mig-21 Bis aircraft and 15 aircraft engines - all of which were to be repaired and returned to the island.
Panama has asked for U.N. experts to determine if this case represents a violation of the Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from importing or exporting any type of armaments.
Meanwhile, after Panama also requested U.S. experts to help inspect the cargo, Washington confirmed that it will provide such assistance.
Panamanian authorities are continuing to remove the thousands of sacks of sugar packed around the weaponry in the hold of the ship, which was built in the North Korean port of Nampo in 1979, a task that could take eight or 10 days. Meanwhile, the sugar - which has gotten wet in the rain since the hold was opened - has attracted a huge swarm of bees to the area.
The North Korean captain of the Chong Chon Gang reportedly attempted to kill himself by slitting his throat when he learned that Panamanian authorities were on the verge of finding the weapons, but he only managed to give himself a minor wound because he was immobilized by a Panamanian Senan security agent, the director of Senan, Belsio Gonzalez, confirmed to Efe. EFE