By Lomi Kriel
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama likely will return the 35-member crew of a North Korean ship detained for smuggling Cuban weapons under 10,000 tons of sugar to their native country in about a month, a government official familiar with the incident said on Tuesday.
"They're going to leave soon, like in a month, most likely they'll go back to Korea," the official said on condition of anonymity. "There is another possibility that they're returned to Cuba and from there go to Korea."
The Central American country will not respond to a request from Pyongyang seeking a "diplomatic manner" to resolve the future of the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, until the U.N. Security Council determines whether the shipment breached a wide-ranging North Korean arms embargo.
The crew have been charged with threatening Panama's security by seeking to move undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal. The Panamanian government official did not say why the crew likely would be released or how the charges would be resolved.
A team of six U.N. Security Council experts arrived in Panama on Monday and will issue a report on whether the weapons violate a 7-year-old U.N. ban on arms transfers to North Korea because of its nuclear weapons and missile development.
Panamanian investigators detained the vessel last month near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal after receiving a tip it was carrying drugs.
Cuban officials maintained the ship contained only a donation of sugar to North Korea but investigators later found military cargo hidden between containers stuffed with raw Cuban sugar.
Cuba later acknowledged it was sending 240 tons of "obsolete" weapons, including two MiG jets, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles, to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba.
North Korea on Thursday sent an email through its embassy in Havana to Panama, requesting "friendly cooperation" to resolve the incident in a "diplomatic manner."
While they did not detail their request, Panamanian officials interpreted it to mean negotiating the future of the ship and its crew directly with Pyongyang and without the United Nations, the official said.
"There is nothing to discuss with the Koreans," he said. "There isn't a diplomatic resolution in this case and it's already in the hands of the U.N. Security Council."
But the official said Panama will allow North Korean officials to meet with their crew, who are in good health and detained in an old U.S. Army base near the Atlantic port of Colon. Such a visit must be coordinated through the International Red Cross, which has met with the sailors, he said.
Panama last month approved visas to North Korean diplomats to visit the crew, then quickly withdrew them after they also requested permission to participate in the inspection of the ship.
(Editing by Simon Gardner and Bill Trott)