Panamanian authorities have charged 33 crew members of the North Korean cargo ship seized at the Panama Canal with jeopardizing public security by trying to transport undeclared arms.
Panama’s state prosecutor Javier Caraballo announced Thursday that the arms trafficking allegations may result in prison sentences of up to six years if the crew members are convicted in a court trial, local press outlets reported.
However, it was not immediately clear why two of the Korean crew members were not charged by the prosecutor.
More than 350 Panamanian security agents and investigators were still searching through the docked Chong Chon Gang cargo vessel on Thursday, eight days after it was intercepted on suspicion of carrying drugs.
Authorities in Panama, which is closely tied to the US, then announced that they had instead found a large cache of outdated Soviet-era weapons systems and two MIG fighter jets buried beneath 200,000 sacks of sugar.
North Korea called on Panama to release the ship and its crew on Wednesday, insisting that the cargo vessel had been halted on a mistaken suspicion of drug transport.
Pyongyang further argued that as the weapons maintenance work was done in exchange for barter goods, it doesn’t technically violate sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation.
Meanwhile, the Cuban government announced following the ship’s seizure that its military cargo — two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled missiles, the two MIG-21 aircraft and 15 MIG engines — belonged to Havana and were being transported to North Korea for repairs.
Moreover, Caraballo also claimed on Thursday that the 35 crewmen on board the Korean vessel refused to cooperate with investigators when the ship was stopped.