MEXICO CITY -- Panama said Wednesday that it had slapped disorderly conduct charges on 35 crewmembers of a rusty North Korean freighter carrying “obsolete” military equipment – including apparently two MiG-21 fighter jets – and summoned U.N. experts to ascertain if the shipment violated U.N. resolutions.
In one of the strangest weapons-smuggling cases in years, about 100 police cadets poured through the hold of the North Korean freighter for a third straight day, pulling out some of the 10,000 tons of bagged brown sugar in a search for what Cuba said would be 240 tons of “obsolete” military equipment that it was sending to North Korea for repair.
Panamanian authorities discovered some of equipment on Monday hidden behind the sugar bags when they searched the vessel after receiving a tip it might be carrying illegal drugs. The ship was preparing to cross the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific Ocean after docking in Havana.
“We’re taking everything out, everything. It’s going to take at least until Sunday, and maybe into next week, to unload that ship,” Panama’s public security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, told McClatchy in a telephone interview.
Mulino said he was mystified by the Cuban government’s assertion in a statement Tuesday that there were two MiG-21 fighter aircraft on board the 508-foot-long Chong Chon Gang. So far, Mulino said, the planes, which would be nearly 50 feet long each and 15 feet tall, have not been uncovered.
“I don’t know how the MiGs would fit in this boat,” he said. “I don’t have the remotest idea how they would load those two MiGs on the ship.”
The vessel is docked at Manzanillo, a port on one side of the Atlantic Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal where it was towed after Panama sought to search it.
U.S. weapons experts arrived in Panama Wednesday, British experts were expected later in the day, and Panama formally asked the U.N. Security Council to send its own experts to identify the Soviet-era equipment, according to Panama’s foreign ministry.
In its statement taking responsibility for the shipment, Cuba emphasized that the military equipment was being sent to North Korea for repairs and was to have been returned to the island. That appeared to be an attempt to sidestep U.N. Security Council Resolution 1817, which bans “the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of all but small weapons to North Korea because of its refusal to halt its nuclear weapons program.
Cuba stressed in its statement that the “obsolete defensive weapons” had all been manufactured in the mid 20th century. It said the equipment included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two MiG-21 jets and 15 engines for the MiGs.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega said in a statement that Cuba cannot legitimately argue that the weapons were nonfunctional.
“The Security Council resolution does not speak to whether they are functional or operational. It just says that warplanes may not be transported to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Nunez Fabrega said, referring to North Korea by its formal name.
New details added to the mystery.
– Hours before President Ricardo Martinelli broke news of the weapons seizure Monday night, Panamanian diplomats met with Cuba’s vice foreign minister, Rogelio Sierra Diaz, who flew to Panama to appeal for the ship’s release. His appeal was rejected.
– The Martinelli government said the North Korean vessel’s manifest made no mention of the used weaponry, and would have violated not only U.N. resolutions but also laws governing passage through the Panama Canal.
– The white bags of brown sugar that hid the armament were themselves unusual. According to one knowledgeable sugar industry administrator who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, sugar of that sort is usually shipped in bulk, not bagged, because it is almost always refined after it arrives at its destination. It made little sense for the sugar to have been placed in 100-pound bags before it was loaded aboard the ship, he said.
– At least four other North Korean vessels besides the Chong Chon Gang have crossed the Panama Canal since 2010, the New York Times reported, citing a maritime trafficking specialist at IHS FairPlay in London, Richard Hurley. One of the ships, the Oun Chong Nyon Ho, also visited ports in Cuba after passing through Panama, it reported.
In its first commentary on the ship, North Korea asserted that Panamanian authorities “rashly attacked” the ship’s crew, according to Pyongyang’s official news agency, KCNA, citing an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman. It urged Panama to let the ship and crew leave “without delay.
"This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," the spokesman was quoted as saying.
Analysts, however, remained stumped.
Why, for example, would Cuba risk a warming trend in relations with the United States to smuggle weapons to North Korea when it would have been easier to bring North Korean technicians to the island? The two nations are not considered to be major weapons business partners.
“Why didn’t the North Koreans just do it in Cuba? Maybe there’s not a lot of industrial capability that the state has there,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Cuba also could have sent the equipment for repair in Russia, said Frank Mora, deputy assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere from 2009 to January and now director of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center.
“It’s illogical. It doesn’t make sense,” Mora said of Havana’s decision to send the weapons and parts to North Korea. “Why take this risk at a time when Cuba appeared to be trying to improve relations with us. . . . How do you explain what seems to be irrational.”
The ship’s crew and captain were being detained at a naval facility at Fort Sherman, a onetime U.S. Army base on the Atlantic side of the canal, Mulino said.
“They’ve been charged with disorderly conduct,” Mulino said, referring to what he called a riot aboard the ship when Panamanian authorities sought to direct it to Manzanillo for a search last week.
Nunez Fabrega said Panama had issued visas to two North Korean diplomats based in Havana to travel to the isthmus “to give explanations or inspect their ship.”
At the United Nations, Britain’s ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said that while "the facts clearly need to be established," the Cuban shipment of weapons appeared to violate the U.N. ban on the trading of arms by or with North Korea.
"On the face of it, the transfer of these weapons to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime on North Korea," he told reporters in New York. "Therefore there are questions to be answered, which need to be followed up."
In Washington, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement that the incident underscored why Cuba should be kept on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. “Weapons transfers from one communist regime to another hidden under sacks of sugar are not accidental occurrences,” he said.
The issue did not come up during U.S.-Cuba immigration talks that took place Wednesday after a two-year suspension, said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
“We’ve told the Cubans that we will talk to them about the ship very soon,” she said.