MEXICO CITY — Panamanian officials Tuesday sought to unravel the mystery surrounding a rusty North Korean freighter in whose hold they found what experts said were parts of an obsolete Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile system hidden beneath sacks of sugar.
Among the unanswered questions: Did the ship – which has a reputed history of smuggling – load the cargo during a stopover in Cuba? And why would it be carrying the decades-old hardware to North Korea, its apparent destination, which already has plenty of such systems?
Finally, why did the captain attempt suicide and his crew put up a fierce struggle when an armed Panamanian security team boarded the vessel to inspect it?
The freighter, identified as the Chong Chon Gang, was tied up in Manzanillo, a port on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal, where work crews toiled Tuesday to clear all of its cargo holds as they searched for more contraband.
“The world should know that one can’t transit through the Panama Canal with undeclared war materiel,” President Ricardo Martinelli told Radio Panama on Monday night. “Panama is a peaceful country, not a country of war.”
The 508-foot-long vessel was detained July 10 after it arrived from the Cuban capital of Havana at the entrance of the canal in preparation for transiting to the Pacific Ocean, Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told the radio station on Tuesday.
Panamanian authorities stopped the freighter after receiving intelligence that it was carrying a large quantity of narcotics, he said.
The vessel was diverted to Manzanillo. When an armed security team arrived to inspect it on Saturday night, the 35 North Korean crewmen grew agitated, he said.
“The captain tried to commit suicide. There was a riot among the sailors,” Martinelli said.
The ship, which apparently was built in 1977, was laden with some 250,000 sacks of brown sugar, Mulino said. The 100-pound sacks weren’t on pallets and appeared stacked to hide chambers or containers, he said.
Between the rioting of the crew and the removal of an initial layer of sugar sacks, the inspection process has been slow, he said, and only two containers had been opened by Tuesday.
Mulino said that the matter probably would be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which banned North Korea from trafficking in any weapons systems after its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and a successful satellite launch in December.
He said he didn’t know the precise type of armament found aboard the vessel, saying that “they are not conventional weapons” and that tests indicated some radiation emissions. Martinelli called the cargo “sophisticated missile equipment.”
Several experts who viewed an online video of the cargo identified what they said was an RSN-75 fire-control radar, a Soviet-designed system that was given the NATO designation of “Fruit Set” and also is known as Fan Song.
“It’s definitely a fire-control radar,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
The system, which reportedly was first deployed in strength in the 1960s by former North Vietnam, was designed for use with the Soviet-designed SA-2 family of anti-aircraft missiles.
It was unclear why the ship would be carrying the obsolete system back to North Korea, Lewis said.
“The Cubans may have been sending it to North Korea to upgrade it,” he said. “I don’t really understand what’s going on.”
IHS Janes Defense Weekly, a military affairs magazine, offered another possible explanation on its website: The system was to be used to augment North Korea’s air defense system, which is “based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars.”
According to a report by Lloyds List Intelligence, the ship departed Russia’s Pacific port of Vostochnny on April 12, bound for Havana, and transited the Panama Canal on June 1. It left Havana last week to pass back through the canal and then back across the Pacific.
Where it had been in the meantime was uncertain. A global arms trafficking expert said the ship had not had its location-reporting system turned on for several weeks. Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the vessel was docked in Cuba at the same time that the chief of staff of the North Korean armed forces was meeting in Havana with ruler Raul Castro.
The ship has run afoul of international authorities before.
In a June 14, 2012, report to the U.N. Security Council, the panel said that it obtained “information from media sources about a seizure of handguns, ammunition, narcotics and other illegal goods on board the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea-owned and flagged vessel Chong Chon Gang in Ukraine late in January 2010.”
The Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea, or DPRK, is North Korea’s official name.
Ukrainian authorities confirmed to the panel “the seizure of limited quantities of ammunition, narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and other contraband goods,” the report said. “In the opinion of the relevant Ukrainian agencies, the small quantities uncovered did not suggest involvement of the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that the United States “strongly supports Panama’s sovereign decision to inspect the DPRK-flagged vessel” and that U.S. officials “are in touch” with Panamanian authorities on the matter.
Any cargo of arms “or related materiel” found aboard the vessel would breach the U.N. sanctions on North Korea, he said, adding that “any country that would (be) exporting arms or arms-related materiel to North Korea” also would be in violation.
He declined to say if the United States had provided intelligence on the ship to Panama. But, Ventrell noted, Panama is part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led international initiative aimed at interdicting illegal arms trafficking.
The United States long has charged that officials of North Korea’s cash-strapped Stalinist regime smuggle drugs, weapons and other contraband to earn hard currency.
After inspecting the ship Monday night, Martinelli sent a tweet with a photo that showed a green missile-shaped metal tube next to a large, oblong-shaped object inside a container. The tube had a conical top and appeared to be octagonal.
“These devices – I don’t know exactly what to call them – are at 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,” Mulino said, adding that the crew had 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.
Cuban diplomats visited the Manzanillo port over the weekend and are cooperating, he said.
Landay reported from Washington. Juan O. Tamayo and Mimi Whitefield of the Miami Herald contributed from Miami.
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