Seized N Korean ship: Cuban weapons on board

The ship was seized by authorities in Panama after military cargo was found hidden in a shipment of sugar

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Cuba has admitted being behind a stash of weapons found on board a North Korean ship seized in the Panama Canal.

The Cuban foreign ministry said the ship was carrying obsolete Soviet-era arms from Cuba for repair in North Korea.

The ship was seized by Panama last week after "undeclared military cargo" was found hidden in a shipment of sugar.

United Nations sanctions prohibit the supply of arms to North Korea in the dispute over its nuclear programme.

A Cuban foreign ministry statement said Cuba reaffirmed its commitment to "peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law".

It said the vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of obsolete defensive weapons - two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.

Analysis

Cuba's admission that it was sending weapons to North Korea for repair, in contravention of UN arms sanctions, explains part of the mystery surrounding this ship. But other questions remain.

Why not simply fly North Korean technicians and parts to Cuba to fix them instead of risking getting caught? Avoiding detection was obviously the plan when the ship had its AIS automatic transponder switched off when it left the Panama Canal to collect the Cuban weapons in June.

The ship itself, the Chong Chon Gang, has been caught in the past carrying narcotics and has had encounters with Somali pirates. But this latest episode gives us just a small glimpse of some of the illegal maritime traffic going on all year round, unseen, across the world.

The Cuban statement said they were all made in the mid-20th Century and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty," the statement went on.

Cuba said the ship's main cargo was 10,000 tonnes of sugar.

The vessel, called Chong Chon Gang, left Russia's far east on 12 April and travelled across the Pacific Ocean before entering the canal at the start of June, with Cuba as its stated destination.

Panamanian officials said the ship was carrying a cargo of sheet metal on its journey through the canal.

However, the vessel disappeared from satellite tracking systems after it left the Caribbean side of the canal, resurfacing on 11 July.

Experts say this may indicate that the crew switched off the system which automatically communicates details of their location.

Panamanian presidential security detail walks on the deck aboard a North Korean-flagged ship The Chong Chon Gang was searched on 12 July, with Panama announcing the discovery of "undeclared military cargo" on board on Tuesday.
Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il decorate an office aboard a North Korean-flagged ship Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il adorned several of the offices on board.
Military equipment in containers aboard a North Korean-flagged ship on the Panamanian coast The Cuban foreign ministry said the weapons were from the Soviet era and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is seen inside North Korean vessel Chong Chong Gang Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli visited the vessel on Tuesday after announcing its seizure.
Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il decorate an office aboard a North Korean-flagged ship Portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il adorned several of the offices on board.

Panamanian officials tried to communicate with the vessel, suspecting it could be carrying illegal goods initially thought to be drugs.

The crew did not respond, so the ship was boarded and the weaponry was uncovered.

Chong Chon Gang's route

Map showing the route that the Chong Chon Gang took before being seized in Panama
  1. Departs from Nakhodka in Russian far east (200km east of North Korean border)
  2. Arrives at Pacific side of Panama Canal
  3. Leaves the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side heading for Havana, but disappears from satellite tracking
  4. Arrives back at Panamanian port of Manzanillo; later searched for contraband. Weapons uncovered
'Historical ties'

North Korea and Cuba are both nominally communist, and a high-level military delegation from North Korea visited at the end of June and was received by President Raul Castro.

Cuban media said they discussed "the historical ties that unite the two nations and the common will to continue strengthening them".

Arms trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths told the BBC the ship's voyage could be seen in the wider context of renewed military co-operation between the two nations.

Announcing the seizure of the vessel on Tuesday, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said it contained suspected "sophisticated missile equipment".

He posted on his Twitter account an image of a large green object inside a cargo container.

Analysts from Jane's defence think-tank identified the object as part of an SNR-75 Fan Song radar, used to guide missiles fired by the SA-2 air-defence system.

The Soviets developed the SA-2 in the late 1950s but began to phase it out in the 1980s.

However, the system is still widely used in countries that were Soviet allies during the Cold War.

US ambassador to UN Rosemary DiCarlo: "Shipments would violate Security Council resolutions"

Mr Martinelli said the 35-strong crew had resisted the search and the captain had tried to kill himself.

The crew face possible charges of illegal weapons smuggling in Panama.

Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said that even if the military cargo was found to be "obsolete", it was still "illicit" to carry it through Panamanian territory without prior notification.

Mr Mulino said that Panama was awaiting the arrival of a commission from the United Nations Security Council to help inspect the arms found aboard the boat.

He said two of the ship's five container sections had been searched so far.

A regional intelligence expert with experience of checking vessels for illicit cargo told the BBC it could take two to three days to complete the search.

He said the Panamanian authorities would be using dog teams to try and find the illicit cargo while divers searched the outside of the vessel.

According to the expert, the ship has been suspected of carrying narcotics in the past, which would have made it a prime target for a search.

The failure of the crew to respond to a request by the security forces to board the ship would have rung further alarm bells.

He said the estimate of one week given by the Panamanians for the search to be finalised was probably "exaggerated" but that they would want to thoroughly inspect the crew's quarters as well as the containers before giving their final report.

The US "commended" Panama for its actions, and said it strongly supported a full inspection of the ship.

The vessel was stopped near Manzanillo on the Atlantic side of the canal last week.

Panama released details of the find on Tuesday.

Annotated image of North Korean ship

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