– 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.