PANAMA CITY -- The North Korean freighter is a three-decade-old rust bucket that literally stinks. It stinks of its crew’s sweat and urine, the greasy kitchen, the food left on the floor, the years of humidity and mold.
Even the photos of the country’s leaders hanging on the wall of the captain’s quarters are old — Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, and his son Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, but not his grandson and current ruler, Kim Jong-un.
“To call that thing filthy would be a compliment,” said Security Minister José Raúl Mulino, waving his left hand toward the ship Chong Chon Gang, docked at the sprawling container port of Manzanillo on Panama’s Atlantic coast.
But the ship also smells of scandal, for it was carrying 240 tons of contraband Cuban weapons to North Korea, in apparent violation of a 7-year-old U.N. arms embargo on Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons and long-range missile development programs.
While the contraband might cool Obama administration efforts to warm up relations with Havana, the United Nations may spare Cuba any significant sanctions because the weapons aboard the freighter are not directly related to the core issues of a U.N. arms embargo against North Korea.
Meanwhile, a knowledgeable source said Sunday that South Korean officials complained earlier this year that North Korea was smuggling cargo through the Panama Canal, but the complaint was dismissed as the result of the two nations’ rivalry. Panama government officials also confirmed that a Cuban deputy foreign minister who rushed to Panama after the ship was seized but before Cuban weapons were found aboard had asserted that there were no drugs aboard and that its only cargo was a “humanitarian gift” of Cuban sugar to Pyongyang.
Other knowledgeable sources said the South Koreans complained to the Panamanian government sometime this spring that Pyongyang had been smuggling undeclared shipments through the Canal, which links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But Panamanian did not pay a lot of attention to the complaint, chalking it up to the bitter rivalry between Communist-ruled Pyongyang and democratic Seoul, said the source, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about the issue.
On Sunday, more than 100 cadets from Panama’s National Police Academy continued unloading the 10,000 tons of brown Cuban sugar used to hide the 40-foot steel shipping containers carrying the Cuban weapons, including two MiGs.
They work in teams, dressed in jeans and either black or grey T-shirts, wearing surgical gloves and carrying backpack water bags to prevent dehydration. Several have been stung by the millions of bees swarming around the sugar.
Some of the 100-pound sacks of sugar have been tested by the Central American nation’s Public Health Department to make sure they contain the sweetener and not what one Panamanian official called “white powder of the non-fattening kind.”
Yet at least the cadets don’t have to go into the crew’s quarters, where the fetid stench and overall decay appear to have grown worse in Panama’s tropical heat and humidity since the ship was impounded July 15.
The smell of mold that dominates the quarters, which are not air conditioned, and undertones of urine and black cigarette tobacco have made some visitors cover their noses and hurry their steps.