A five-member U.N. team is scheduled to arrive in Panama in early August for an on-site examination of a North Korean ship seized for carrying weapons from Cuba, officials said Thursday.
Panama raided the 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang ship last week as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal. It is alleged to be transporting contraband weapons in violation of U.N. sanctions.
The Panamanian authorities asked the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committee to investigate the case.
The team of five experts will arrive in Panama on Aug. 5, according to its foreign ministry.
The U.S. government expects a lengthy process to determine whether the shipment is in violation of the U.N. Security Council sanctions banning the transport of all weapons to and from North Korea except small arms.
"The ship is still being off-loaded," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a press briefing in Washington.
"This process, just to set expectations here, will probably be a lengthy one."
She added, "We're viewing this as a potential violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea. That's really the lens through which we're viewing it."
North Korea has said it was transporting obsolete weaponry under a legitimate contract with Cuba. It demanded the immediate release of the ship and its 35-man crew indicted by local prosecutors for "attempts against Panama's security."
Cuba said the seized cargo includes missile parts, MiG-21 aircraft parts and 15 plane motors, all manufactured "in the mid-20th century" and "to be repaired and returned to Cuba."
The U.S. government sought to limit the impact of the incident on apparently warming ties between Washington and Havana.
"I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn't a U.S.-Cuba issue," Harf said. "It's really an issue that we're focused on in terms of the U.N. and the sanctions that we have through the U.N. on North Korea."
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday commended Panama for taking action against the North Korean ship in line with U.N. Security Council sanctions.
"The Secretary-General is aware of the discovery by the Panamanian authorities of a weapons shipment on the DPRK (North
Korea) ship sailing from Cuba," his office said in an emailed statement. "The Secretary-General commends the action taken by Panama in full conformity with its obligations under the relevant Security Council resolutions." (Yonhap News)