North Korean Ship Seized In Panama Canal, Carrying Cuban Missiles

A North Korean ship was seized by authorities in Panama Monday evening. Trying to pass through the Panama Canal, the ship was discovered to be transporting “undeclared military cargo.”

The New York Times reports that Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, said that the illicit goods were presumed to be “sophisticated missile equipment.”

The military cargo was revealed to be hidden in two large containers hidden behind shipments of sugar, explained President Martinelli in an interview with Radio Panama.

Perhaps most curious is that the ship had recently departed from Cuba, headed for North Korea with the missile equipment. While the United Nations has strict sanctions leveled against the rogue Asian nation, the weapons seized are usually on their way out of North Korea — not coming in.

In the past, North Korea has been known to deal weapons in a variety of black market trades around the world.

American officials say this has been crucial in generating funds North Korea needs to continue its highly controversial nuclear and long-range missile development programs.

The North Korean ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was first noticed by authorities after the ship “aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew,” said Panamanian President Martinelli.

Initially, authorities believed the Chong Chon Gang was attempting to smuggle illicit drugs in its cargo hold. But after commandeering the vessel and examining further, Panamanian law enforcement discovered the ship to instead be carrying weapons.

After inspectors at the Panama Canal uncovered the contraband, the captain reportedly attempted to commit suicide to avoid imprisonment. In addition, 35 crew members, all North Korean nationals, were arrested, reports NBC News.

A cursory check of the vessel’s transport records show that before departing from Cuba, the Chong Chon Gang had been to Tianjin, China in January. Later, in April, the ship visited Vostochnyy, Russia. Authorities say they plan to check for more detailed records to verify these dates.

The legal ramifications are still unclear, though Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, has said that there will be further investigation. If it is revealed that the North Korean ship seized at the Panama Canal was indeed carrying weapons bound for North Korea, Martinelli will be consulting the United Nations.

[Image via IHS Maritime / NBC News]