Panamanian officials Tuesday sought to unravel the mystery surrounding a rusty North Korean freighter after finding what experts said were parts of an obsolete Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile system hidden beneath sacks of brown sugar in its hold.
Among the unanswered questions: Why would the ship, which has a reputed history of smuggling, be carrying the decades-old hardware to North Korea, its apparent destination and why did the captain attempt suicide and his crew put up a fierce struggle when an armed Panamanian security team boarded the vessel to inspect it? Finally, who tipped the Panamanians off to check the ship?
But Tuesday night the Cuban government broke its silence: The ship had been to Cuba and was carrying “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons.’’ The weaponry, according to a statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, was being sent to North Korea for repairs.
It included two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for MiGs, the ministry said.
But late Tuesday, Panamanians still hadn’t found the entire cache. The freighter, identified as the Chong Chon Gang, was tied up in Manzanillo, a port on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal, as crews toiled to clear all of its cargo holds and searched for more contraband. Panamanian inspectors said the process could take up to eight days.
“The world should know that one can’t transit through the Panama Canal with undeclared war materiel,” President Ricardo Martinelli told RPC radio late Monday. “Panama is a peaceful country, not a country of war.”
The 508-foot-long vessel was detained last Wednesday after it arrived from Havana at the entrance of the canal in preparation for transiting to the Pacific Ocean, Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told Radio Panama on Tuesday.
Panamanian authorities stopped the freighter after receiving intelligence that it was carrying a large quantity of narcotics, he said. Narcotics seizures are commonplace in Panama, which was tops in Central America for drug seizures in 2012.
Patrick Ventrell, a U.S. State Department spokesman, declined to say at a daily briefing Tuesday whether the U.S. had been tracking the ship, shared information with the Panamanians or whether the U.S. was aware of the vessel’s itinerary.
According to a report by Lloyds List Intelligence, the ship departed Russia’s Pacific port of Vostochnny on April 12, bound for Havana, and transited the Panama Canal on June 1. It left Havana last week to pass back through the canal and then back across the Pacific, Lloyds said.
The discovery of the weapons cache comes at a time when the United States and Cuba appear willing to work toward a better relationship and it’s unclear whether the discovery of the weapons cache could put a chill in the relationship.
After a two-year hiatus, talks between the U.S. State Department and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials on thorny immigration issues are scheduled to begin Wednesday.
In June, the two sides held two days of talks on resuming direct mail — a service that has been cut off between the two countries since 1963. U.S. officials said the talks went well and other rounds of discussions are expected to be held.
But Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called on the State Department to call off the migration talks until Cuba “provides clear and coherent answers” about the discovery of the weaponry.
“This incident should serve as a wakeup call to the administration, which over the past few months has been leading an apparent effort to normalize relations with Cuba, that it cannot continue to engage the Castro regime,’’ she said.
But Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami, said he had doubts about the Panamanian version of the incident.
“I found this story strange for a number of reasons,” he said. “Cuba has nothing to offer the Koreans in the field of missile technology — unless there is a museum in North Korea interested in weapons from the late 1970s or early 1980s.’’
The Chong Chon Gang whereabouts after it left the Panama Canal in early June was also something of a mystery because it did not have its location-reporting system turned on for several weeks, said Hugh Griffiths, a global arms trafficking expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
But it appears the vessel was docked in Cuba at the same time that the chief of staff of the North Korean armed forces was meeting in Havana with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, said Griffiths.
MarineTraffic.com places the vessel at a wharf at the port of Cristobal near the Atlantic entrance to the canal and the Colon Free Zone on Friday. It started to move away from the dock toward the anchorage where ships wait their turn to transit the Panama Canal early Saturday evening. Shortly after that, Panamanian authorities apparently diverted it to Manzanillo on the other side of the city of Colon.
When an armed security team arrived to inspect it on Saturday night, the 35 North Korean crewmen grew agitated.
“The captain tried to commit suicide. There was a riot among the sailors,” Martinelli said.
The ship, which apparently was built in 1977, was laden with some 250,000 sacks of brown sugar, Mulino said. The 100-pound sacks weren’t on pallets and appeared stacked to hide chambers or containers, he said.
Between the rioting of the crew and the removal of an initial layer of sugar sacks, the inspection process has been slow, he said, and only two containers had been opened by Tuesday.
Mulino said that the matter probably would be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which banned North Korea from trafficking in any weapons systems after its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and a successful satellite launch last December.
Several experts who viewed an online video of the weapons found so far identified what they said was an RSN-75 fire control radar, a Soviet-designed system that was given the NATO designation of “Fruit Set” and also is known as Fan Song.
“It’s definitely a fire control radar,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
The system, which reportedly was first deployed in strength in the 1960s by former North Vietnam, was designed for use with the Soviet-designed SA-2 family of anti-aircraft missiles.
“The Cubans may have been sending it to North Korea to upgrade it,” Lewis said. “I don’t really understand what’s going on.”
Any cargo of arms “or related materiel” found aboard the vessel would breach the U.N. sanctions on North Korea, said Ventrell, adding that “any country that would (be) exporting arms or arms-related materiel to North Korea” also would be in violation.
The incident also comes at a time when South Korea, which has long maintained a hostile relationship with its northern neighbor, has been particularly active in Panama with 17 Korean multinationals in the Colon Free Zone. Panama is also South Korea’s largest trading partner in Latin America and the Caribbean
Cuban diplomats visited the Manzanillo port over the weekend and are cooperating, Martinelli said.
Whitefield reported from Miami and McClatchy correspondents Landay reported from Washington and Johnson from Mexico City. This report also contains material from El Nuevo Herald’s Juan O. Tamayo, who reported from Miami, and Miami Herald special correspondent Asia Sherman, who reported from Panama City.