Drug enforcement officials in the Panama Canal found themselves at the centre of an international incident after detaining a North Korean ship coming from Cuba and carrying a hidden cargo of arms.
The boarding of the ship by police set off riots among the crew and the vessel’s captain reportedly tried to commit suicide.
The first details were given by Ricardo Martinelli, the Panamanian president, who said the ship – a cargo carrier named Chong Chon Gang, whose home port is Namp’o close to the North Korean capital Pyongyang – had been stopped as it approached the entrance to the Panama Canal, apparently on its way home.
Instead of drugs however police found military material concealed within a large consignment of sugar, a key Cuban export. A picture posted online by Mr Martinelli showed a tube-shaped object painted green, variously identified by experts as a missile part or radar equipment for missile launches.
The Cuban foreign ministry confirmed last night that the ship had been loaded with "obsolete defensive weaponry" at one of its ports.
Cuba said the weapons were being sent back to North Korea for repair and included two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled rockets, two MiG-21 fighter jets, and 15 MiG-21 engines, all Soviet-era military weaponry built in the middle of the last century.
In a statement from the foreign ministry, which was read out on the state TV evening news, Cuba said the weaponry was all required "to maintain our defensive capacity to preserve national sovereignty." It added, "Cuba maintains its commitment to peace including nuclear disarmament and international law."
When Panamanian police boarded the ship, the estimated 35 crew members started to riot and were taken into custody, the president said, while the captain tried to kill himself and subsequently suffered a heart attack. As of last night, there had been no comment from North Korea.
Mr Martinelli told Radio Panama the ship violated United Nations resolutions against arms trafficking. “We suspected this ship … might have drugs aboard so it was brought into port for search and inspection. But when we started to unload the shipment of sugar we found containers we believe to be sophisticated missile equipment, and that is not allowed.”
Weapons analysts at IHS Janes defence consultants identified the equipment as the RSN-75 fire radar fire control system for ground-to-air missiles, known by Nato as “fan song”. “Either this was Cuban equipment that the North Koreans were taking back to upgrade,” an analyst said. “Or equipment they had acquired to improve their own air defences, which are becoming obsolete.” But with only one of the Chong Chon Gang’s five cargo holds searched, other weaponry may be found.
The Soviet-built ship, built in 1977 and with a 14,000 deadweight tonnage, has its own colourful history. Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the vessel had on past occasions been caught trafficking narcotics and small arms ammunition, and been on the institute’s suspect list for some while. In 2010, it was stopped in Ukraine, and in 2009 it had been attacked by pirates 400 miles off the coast of Somalia.
This time, according to President Martinelli, the ship was on its way from Cuba back to North Korea when it was stopped and taken to the cargo distribution centre of Manzanillo, east of the Atlantic entry to the canal. Experts said the sugar could have been payment by Cuba for an upgrade to the radar system.
Cuba is among the few allies of North Korea, one of the most isolated countries on earth. Though Pyongyang is barred by the UN from exporting and importing weapons, arms trafficking has long been one of the regime’s few viable sources of hard currency. It is also said to have provided expertise and equipment to help the nuclear programmes of countries like Pakistan and Syria.
Since the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011 and his succession by his son Kim Jong-Un, the country’s behaviour has become even more erratic. In February it carried out a third nuclear test, even threatening to attack the US, and has never concealed its goal of building its own nuclear missile.
Last December, it launched a three-stage rocket which placed a satellite in orbit. The mission was said by the North to have been for peaceful scientific purposes. But Western experts believe it was a covert missile test, banned under UN resolutions. Whether Pyongyang has the technology to build a nuclear warhead for a missile is unclear.