Panamanian Troops stand guard aboard the seized North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang as police cadets prepare to search the ship's cargo hold for additional weapons and military hardware. Carlos Jasso photo
Authorities in Panama discovered a cache of Cold War era weaponry after seizing and boarding a North Korean cargo vessel that was approaching the Panama Canal. Panamanian authorities became suspicious when the vessel approached the canal with its maritime transponder shut off and believed the vessel was carrying drugs.
The captain of the North Korean-flagged dry-bulk freighter Chong Chon Gang reportedly had a heart attack and attempted to kill himself as Panamanian soldiers boarded the vessel while the crew resisted arrest before the vessel was redirected to the Caribbean port of Colon. A search of one of the cargo holds turned up Soviet-era surface to air missiles and guidance system components buried among tons of sugar. The ship's crew and captain were detained by Panamanian troops on charges of violating national security and transporting undeclared weapons.
The freighter was returning from Cuba and the government of Raul Castro claimed that the weapons found were Cuban and being sent to North Korea for refurbishment, despite an international arms embargo against the secretive Marxist regime. A further search of the Chong Chon Gang's cargo hold has also turned up two MiG 21 fighter jets in addition to 15 engines- also concealed among two tons of sugar. Officials estimate there are a total of 27 container under the sugar in the Chong Chon Gang's cargo hold and are awaiting the arrival of a team of UN inspectors to further examine the ship next week.
Under current sanctions, all U.N. member states are prohibited from directly or indirectly supplying, selling or transferring arms, missiles or missile systems and the equipment and technology to make them to North Korea, with the exception of small arms and light weapons.
It also lets countries inspect cargo destined for North Korea if a state has credible information the cargo could violate Security Council resolutions.
The discovery aboard the freighter Chong Chon Gang was expected to trigger an investigation by the U.N. Security Council committee that monitors the sanctions against North Korea.
If Cuba wanted to send the weapons for repairs and have them returned, it would have needed to get a waiver from the Security Council committee monitoring the North Korea sanctions.
According to maritime blogger Convenient Flags, North Korean merchant ships appearing in Panamanian waters is relatively rare, with a grand total of five traversing the Panama Canal since 2010. The Chong Chon Gang passed through the Panama Canal on its way to Cuba earlier with a load of sheet metal- Panamanian authorities inspected the vessel then. The seized freighter's route and ports of call were similar to that of the 2012 voyage another North Korean vessel made in 2012- only the O Un Chong Nyon Ho's voyage didn't attract as much attention at the time.
Cuba had told Panamanian officials that the outbound cargo on board the Chong Chon Gang was a 'donation' of sugar to North Korea and both North Korea and Cuba have called for the ship's release. Former Colombian president Alviro Uribe also speculated that the arms on board could be destined for a third party if they were on their way to being refurbished by North Korea- Uribe says he believes Ecuador or one of the nations that was part of Hugo Chavez's Bolivar Axis was a likely destination.
[I maintain that the ship's final destination was actually Mike Bloomberg's New York, and the contraband sugar would've been smuggled in by hiding them among the MiG jets and surface to air missiles- NANESB!]