N. Korean ship mystery: Panama says it found missile parts behind bags of sugar

Work crews at a port along the Panama Canal toiled Tuesday to clear the hold of a rusted North Korean-flagged ship after early searches turned up what Panama’s president calls “sophisticated missile equipment” buried beneath bags of sugar.

So far, workers have found two containers bearing long, green tubes but a number of other chambers aboard the ship remain to be inspected, President Ricardo Martinelli told Radio Panama Monday night.

The 508-foot-long vessel, which Panama media say bears the name Chong Chon Gang, is moored at the Manzanillo port on the Atlantic side of the canal, Security Minister Jose Raul Mulina told the radio station Tuesday morning.

“The world should know that one can’t transit through the Panama Canal with undeclared war materiel,” Martinelli said. “Panama is a peaceful country, not a country of war.”

The ship was detained last Wednesday as it arrived from Havana, Cuba, on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal in preparation for traveling through the canal to the Pacific Ocean, Mulina said. He said Panamanian authorities had received intelligence that the vessel held a large quantity of narcotics.

The ship was brought to port and once an armed security team arrived to inspect the vessel Saturday night, the 35 North Korean sailors aboard grew agitated.

“The captain tried to commit suicide. There was a riot among the sailors,” Martinelli said.

The ship, which records indicate was built in 1972, was laden with some 250,000 100-pound sacks of brown sugar, Mulina said. The sacks were not placed on pallets and appeared stacked to hide chambers or containers aboard the vessel, he said. Between the rioting of the crew and removal of an initial layer of sugar sacks, the process of inspection has taken many days, he said, and only two containers have been opened so far.

Mulina said the matter would likely be referred to the United Nations Security Council, which banned the isolated Asian nation from trafficking in any weapons systems following its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and a successful satellite launch last December.

He said he didn’t know the precise type of armament found aboard the vessel, saying only that “they are not conventional weapons” and that tests indicated some radiation surrounding them.

After inspecting the ship Monday night, Martinelli sent out a tweet with a photo showing two metal tubes inside a container. The tubes had a conical top and appeared to be octagonal, lashed to the sides of the container.

“These devices – I don’t know exactly what to call them – are the very back of the hold, at the back.,” he said. “It’s been an effort of labor, shoulder to shoulder, to unload the sugar and open those two containers with acetylene (torches).”

“First we have to offload the ship, which isn’t an easy task,” Mulina said, adding that the crew damaged equipment aboard the vessel that would have eased removal of the bags of sugar, which now must be offloaded by hand or rented cranes. “It’s going to take several more days to get the cargo out of the vessel.”

“There are five chambers and the sugar was on top. Upon removal of the first layer, we found these containers,” Martinelli said.

The two containers inspected so far were old, Mulina said, and had been discarded at the port of Rotterdam in Holland in 2002.

Cuban diplomats visited the Manzanillo port over the weekend and are cooperating, he said.