The North Korean authorities will pay $666,666 for the release of the Chong Chon Gang, the DPRK vessel stopped for carrying military equipment from Cuba through the Panama Canal, in addition to freeing 32 of the 35 strong crew.
Panama’s foreign minister, Fernando Nunes said on Thursday that the vessel, which is owned and managed by Pyongyang based Chongchongang Shipping, will be released ‘immediately’ after receipt of the payment.
“Over the course of the next week, they have confirmed to us that the (North Korean) Foreign Ministry will pay to free the sailors and the ship,” Nunez told reporters.
The Panama Canal Authority had originally set the fine to a million dollars, but reduced the sum by a third after North Korean officials admitted to giving a false statement concerning the ship’s cargo.
“Considering the re-sale value of a vessel the size of the Chong Chon Gang it’s not surprising the owners pay the sum requested by Panama for its release,” Lawrence Dermody, a researcher on illicit trafficking at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute told NK News.
The Chong Chon Gang was heading back to North Korea when Panamanian authorities seized it last July. Originally suspected of smuggling drugs, the ship was instead found to be carrying undeclared weapons, two Mig21 fighter jets and Soviet era radar systems hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar
The issue of the crew’s freedom is slightly less clear, with the sailors’ lawyer Julio Berros telling AFP “”I have not been informed of this, and I don’t know where Nunez got this information.” However, it’s likely that 32 of the 35 crew-members will be released on the grounds that they had no knowledge of what was aboard. The remaining three will face up to twelve years in prison.
Both the North Korean and Cuban governments insisted that the cargo was headed to the DPRK for repair, an explanation that the Panamanian authorities found insufficient due the UN sanctions governing the movement of military equipment to North Korea.
Picture: Vessels at shipyard in Nampo, North Korea, by Eric Lafforgue