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.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
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.
Bedsheets look like they have not been washed in weeks, ashtrays everywhere overflow with butts, and bags of rice sit on the floor near what appear to be rat droppings, said journalists who toured the ship Tuesday with President Ricardo Martinelli.
Bits and pieces of crew gear and other equipment litter the narrow passageways, rusty pipes seem almost ready to burst, and exposed electrical wiring was visible in some of the crew compartments.
About the only thing looking fresh on the 510-foot bulk freighter is the red, white and blue flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the communist-ruled country’s official name, painted across the ship’s 30-foot wide black smokestack.
Health department crews cleaned out the worst of the filth on Friday, Mulino said, but the ship remains “a pigsty.”
Attorney General Ana Belfon said Friday she has vetoed all further visits to the ship, arguing that the Chong Chon Gang is now a crime scene and that she is concerned about the safety of the ship and its visitors.
Its 35 crewmen, all North Koreans, are being detained at the home base of the paramilitary Air and Naval Service, “with air conditioning and much better conditions than they had in that thing,” said Mulino, a lawyer who specializes in admiralty law.
They have been appointed a public defender, but have rejected all attempts to interview them and none have given any indication that they might want to defect, said chief narcotics prosecutor Javier Caraballo.
Caraballo said the crew rioted when Panamanian authorities boarded the ship last week because of “intelligence information we developed” that the Chong Chon Gang was carrying drugs as it waited to cross the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The crew has been charged with endangering Panama’s security when they resisted the search of their ship.
As of Saturday, police cadets had uncovered seven 40-foot containers, Mulino told El Nuevo Herald, hidden under 220,000 sacks of sugar stacked “in an extreme or ill-intentioned manner” that makes it more difficult to search underneath.
Fearing that some of the containers are booby-trapped, the searchers have been waiting for explosives experts from the United States and other countries to open the last five containers found. The two containers found first were opened and contained fire control radars for SA-2 antiaircraft missiles.
The cadets so far have searched only one of the ship’s five cargo holds — not four as previously reported. Each hold has three decks, separated by heavy steel floors that are moved into and out of place by massive electrical motors.
Havana has said the shipment was “obsolete” war materiel sent to be upgraded in North Korea, a long time ally. It described the equipment as antiaircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21s and 15 motors for the MiGs. Five containers containing the fighters and other weapons were found Sunday. Some were still smelling of gasoline, indicating that they were being used until relatively recently, said Caraballo.
It has not explained why the weapons were not declared in the ship’s manifest, why they were hidden under the tons of sugar and why they were being sent to Pyongyang instead of their manufacturers in the former Soviet bloc.
North Korea’s foreign ministry said the weapons were shipped under a legitimate upgrade deal with Havana. But neither Pyongyang nor Havana officials have been in contact with the Panama government since the weapons were found on the freighter. Belfon said that if no drugs are found aboard the ship, the case will be transferred to a prosecutor in the organized crime section — smuggling weapons — while the possible violation of the arms embargo will be decided by the U.N. Security Council. Security Council experts are not expected to arrive until Aug. 5.
“We are still in the discovery process, and this will take several more days, to remove all the sugar and search the entire the ship, “ said Carballo, “and that’s without running into any more surprises.”