A North Korean-flagged ship carrying what is believed to be “sophisticated missile equipment” hidden in sugar containers was stopped while returning home from Cuba, Panamanian officials said late Monday.
Speaking to Radio Panama, President Ricardo Martinelli said the captain of the ship tried to kill himself after officials began searching the consignment of sugar.
The vessel–identified by Lloyd’s List Intelligence as the Chong Chon Gang–was heading for the Panama Canal when it was stopped on suspicion of carrying drugs. It was then taken to the port of Manzanillo to be searched.
Martinelli posted a picture of the weapons on Twitter “so that the world knows that you can’t transfer non-declared, war-like material through the Panama Canal.”
“The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not of war,” he said.
Defense experts said the equipment in Martinelli’s picture appeared to be a radar control system for surface-to-air weapons.
Panamanian authorities have detained some 35 crew members, Reuters reported.
The vessel “aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew from Friday afternoon,” Panama’s Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told Radio Panama, according to the AFP news agency.
Javier Caraballo, an anti-drugs enforcement official, said: “Until now we have not found drugs in the boat, we found military equipment.” He told local television the ship was en route to North Korea, Reuters reported.
Staff at U.K.-based IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly magazine said the picture released by Panama showed an “RSN-75 ‘Fan Song’ fire-control radar system” for a surface-to-air missile system in the SA-2 family.
“IHS Country Risk assesses that the manner in which the cargo was concealed and the reported reaction of the crew strongly suggests this was a covert shipment of equipment,” IHS said in a statement.
“One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade. In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services,” it said.
“However, under a second scenario, the fire-control radar equipment could have been en route to North Korea to augment Pyongyang’s existing air defense network. North Korea’s air defense network is arguably one of the densest in the world, but it is also based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars. In particular, its high altitude SA-2/3/5 surface-to-air missiles … are ineffective in a modern electronic warfare environment.”
Neil Ashdown, Asia-Pacific analyst with IHS, said it was unclear whether the fire-control system itself would be a breach of U.N. sanctions against arms shipments to North Korea.
He said they were waiting to hear from the Panamanian authorities whether there was anything else in the shipment.
Richard Meade, editor of U.K.-based shipping journal Lloyd’s List, said the vessel was called Chong Chon Gang. He described it as a general cargo ship owned by the Chongchongang Shipping Company of Nampo, southwest of Pyongyang, North Korea.
The Lloyd’s List Intelligence service tracks ships’ movements via satellite and Meade said its “reporting service has flagged up the fact it was arrested.”
Meade said he was still checking the Chong Chon Gang’s movements, but initial information showed the vessel was in Tianjin, China, on Jan. 25, then Vostochnyy, Russia, on April 12, before arriving in Balboa, Panama, on the Pacific Coast on May 30. He said it passed through the Panama Canal on June 1.
Richard Hurley, senior maritime data specialist with IHS Aerospace, Defence and Maritime, said the ship’s destination was listed as Havana, Cuba, when it passed through the Panama Canal on June 1.
He said it was lower in the water when it returned to Panama–according to data normally provided by the ship’s staff and supplied to satellite tracking services–which could be because its cargo was heavier though there could also have been changes to the ship’s ballast.
Both Meade and Hurley said the ship did not appear on satellite tracking after leaving Panama. Meade said the ship could have turned off its tracking device; Hurley added that it was not unusual for satellite tracking not to work in the area, partly because of the high density of maritime traffic.
Leading Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that the crew and captain were taken to Fort Sherman, a former American military base now controlled by Panama.
Minister of Security Jose Raul Mulino told the paper that if it was confirmed as a case of weapons smuggling Panama would consult with the United Nations to establish whether the crew should be handed over to an international body.
A spokeswoman for the Panama Canal told Reuters she did not have any more information and referred questions to the attorney general. The attorney general’s office did not immediately return requests for comment.
In April, Admiral Sam Locklear told Congress that the U.S. was capable of intercepting a missile launched by North Korea.
This came after months of heightened tensions due to missile and nuclear bomb tests by the North, during which it threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against U.S. and South Korean targets.
In October, 2012, North Korea claimed that the U.S. mainland was “within the scope” of its missiles.
There are fears Pyongyang is trying to build a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the mainland United States.
Reuters contributed to this report.