Courtesy IHS Maritime
A shipment of weapons system components hidden in sugar containers was intercepted on its way from Cuba to North Korea after being searched on suspicion of drugs. NBC’s Mark Potter reports.
A North Korean cargo ship was stopped near the Panama Canal and searched on suspicion of drugs, but it was carrying something sweeter — the apparent parts of a surface-to-air missile system, hidden inside containers of brown sugar.
The State Department said any shipment of arms or related material aboard the freighter would violate at least three U.N. resolutions.
The ship was on its way home from Cuba. Panamanian authorities said the captain of the ship tried to kill himself after officials boarded it Monday and began searching the containers that were supposed to contain the sugar.
The captain of the North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang tried to kill himself as the vessel was searched, according to Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli.
Independent defense analysts and U.S. officials said Tuesday that the equipment appeared to be a radar control system for surface-to-air missiles, and that the behavior of the crew suggested the equipment was being shipped covertly.
But Gordon Chang, the author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World,” said it didn’t matter what was in the cargo hold.
“What’s important is that the North Koreans were able to smuggle dangerous equipment into our hemisphere,” he said.
Panama said it seized the ship on suspicion of drugs as it headed for the Panama Canal. Reuters reported that Panama had also detained 35 members of the crew.
President Ricardo Martinelli went so far as to post a picture of the weapons equipment on Twitter “so that the world knows that you can’t transfer non-declared, war-like material through the Panama Canal.”
Panamá capturo barco de bandera Norcoreana proveniente de cuba con cargamento bélico no declarado pic.twitter.com/MdWGfbXvVJ
— Ricardo Martinelli (@rmartinelli) July 16, 2013
“The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not of war,” he said.
A State Department spokesman said that the United States supported Panama’s decision to seize the ship and offered Washington’s help if Panama needs it.
Staff at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a respected military affairs magazine, said the picture appeared to show a radar system for surface-to-air missiles — specifically an RSN-75 Fan Song fire-control radar system for a family of missiles known as SA-2.