Arnulfo Franco / AP
Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container of the North Korean ship.
North Korea is demanding the release its cargo ship carrying rockets, missile parts and even a couple of Cold War-era fighter jets, which was seized by Panama.
The suspicious cargo, loaded in Cuba, was found concealed under sacks of brown sugar.
North Korea’s foreign ministry called Panama’s search and seizure of the freighter under the pretext it was carrying drugs “fiction” and said the shipment of the cargo was a legitimate business deal.
“The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of 'drug investigation' and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug," North Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
"This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.
"The Panamanian authorities should take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay."
The United States has said any shipment of arms or related material aboard the freighter would violate at least three U.N. resolutions.
But senior U.S. officials told NBC News the Obama administration wants the Cuban connection to the cargo kept separate from U.S.-Cuba relations, especially in light of the restart of long awaited "migration talks" between the two countries. They are the first such talks since 2011.
The talks were conducted in Washington on Wednesday between State Department and a high-ranking Cuban foreign ministry official.
The United States brought up the continued jailing of USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been jailed since his arrest in December 2009.
For its part, Panama on Wednesday said it wants the United Nations to investigate why the rusting vessel was carrying the arms.
State Department officials are also asking the U.N. to deal with the North Korean issue, since it falls under possible violations of U.N. sanctions.
"The focus here really is letting the U.N. process play out in terms of determining how the UN sanctions are going to be applied - and not really on the Cuba aspect at this point," one official told NBC.
On Wednesday, Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said he wanted the U.N. to look the arms shipment, Reuters reported.
A U.N. spokesman told The Associated Press that determining whether North Korea violated sanctions or not was up to the Security Council.
Reportedly suspecting drug-smuggling, Panamanian officials stopped the ship last week near the Panama Canal after a standoff with the crew during which the captain tried to kill himself.
Instead, Panama found a small arsenal — two MiG-21 fighter jets, two anti-aircraft missile batteries, 15 jet engines and nine dissembled rockets. It was all buried under 240,000 sacks of raw Cuban sugar.
Cuba says the weapons are all from the Soviet era and were being sent to North Korea for repair. U.S. officials say they want to talk to Cuba about the matter.
At least two rooms on the ship were adorned with photos of old North Korean leaders — President Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and his late son, Kim Jong Il.
Thirty-five members of the crew were detained after the discovery. Mulino said they would be charged with crimes against Panama’s security. He said Panama hasn’t talked to North Korea about the matter.
The author of a book on North Korea’s ambitions told NBC News on Tuesday that the smuggling was troubling because it showed North Korea can get dangerous equipment into the Western Hemisphere.
Experts told the AP that North Korea has a robust capability to upgrade Soviet-era equipment, and it has a track record of trading technical expertise for commodities such as sugar.
But the North is also known to be seeking spare parts for its own weapons systems.
“We think it is credible that they could be sending some of these systems for repair and upgrade work,” Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Intelligence, told the AP. "But equally there is stuff in that shipment that could be used in North Korea and was not going back.”
James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of the respected military affairs magazine Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the equipment Cuba said was on the ship was “pretty well covered” by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.
The resolution says all member states shall “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” to North Korea of “any battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms, or related materiel including spare parts.”
Hardy said that the “argument that it is just for repair doesn’t wash – it would be covered by ‘direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer.’”
“So in short, Cuba appears to be in breach — and pretty heavily,” he said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Related: PhotoBlog: Portraits of smiling dictators decorate seized ship
First published July 17 2013, 1:05 PM