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North Korean media make an odd claim about Panama

View of North Korean vessel Chong Chong Gang at Manzanillo harbour in Colon, 90 km from Panama City. (RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

Two weeks after Panama detained a North Korean ship for illegally transporting hidden military equipment, apparently taken out of Cuba, North Korea's state news agency put out a very strange article that refers to Panama but does not mention the detained ship.

The Korean Central News Agency says that, as part of ongoing national celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, some sailors from a Panamanian ship spontaneously decided to join the festivities. The sailors, it says, "paid tribute" to national founder Kim Il Sung and joined a local "meeting" where people in attendance "said that under the wise leadership of Kim Il Sung the Korean people defeated the U.S. imperialists, protecting the sovereignty and dignity of the country and the nation and encouraging the struggle of the world revolutionary people."

Here's a snip from the story, which does not mention, even in passing, Panama's detention of the North Korean ship:

Pyongyang, July 27 (KCNA) -- Foreign crewmen met at Nampho Port Saturday, the 60th anniversary of the victory in the Fatherland Liberation War.

The participants laid a floral basket before the statue of President Kim Il Sung in Nampho City and paid tribute to him. Captains and crewmen of the Panamanian-flagged ship Plain Sailing and Dongfeng took part in the meeting.

Speeches were made there.

It is true that there's a Panamanian ship at Nampo Port, which serves Pyongyang. Ship records show it as a cargo ship that's been knocking around China for the last few months.

North Korean state media typically portray any show of polite deference by foreigners, no matter how slight, as an elaborate show of fealty to North Korea, its leaders and its ideology. So it's reasonable to suspect that, for example, perhaps the Panamanian sailors were handed some flowers to put before a Kim Il Sung statue and that they politely complied.

What seems significant here is that state media would single out sailors from Panama at a moment when North Korea is suffering international embarrassment from Panama's detention of a North Korean ship. It's often less than totally clear what North Korean propagandists are intending with their missives -- earnestly felt ideology can be tough to distinguish from more rationally calibrated rhetoric -- but it's possible that this was meant as a hint of positive solidarity with Panamanians.

North Korean state media's initial English-language response to the ship detention was outraged, unsurprisingly, but it was short, doesn't appear to have been followed up on and was not quite as hotly written as we might have expected. The KCNA release accused Panama of having "rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen" of the ship, but it also noted that the authorities did not find any illegal drugs as they'd expected and so should "take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay."

The timing of North Korea's story about Kim-loving Panamanian sailors might be a coincidence. And it's entirely possible that Pyongyang's English-language coverage of the ship detention only seems mild because we're accustomed to much more overheated rhetoric about the United States. But it's tempting to see some hints of North Korean public diplomacy at work here, if only because something that rare would be too good to be missed.



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Max Fisher · July 29, 2013

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