The fuselages of two MiG-21 fighter jets were discovered by Panamanian authorities in the hold of a ship bound for North Korea.
The North Korean freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, loaded its cargo in Cuba. The ship’s manifest declared that it was carrying only sugar. However, the Panamanians were suspicious and decided to check. Initially, they discovered some obsolete anti-aircraft radar equipment hidden under the sacks of sugar.
As the investigation continued, they found other pieces of military equipment including missile parts and 15 MiG jet engines. This raised suspicions that there was more to be found. They then detected a powerful smell of fuel, which led them to the discovery of the MiG-21 fighter jets. Their assumption was that the aircraft had recently been flown, as their fuel tanks were still partly filled.
Seven containers have already been examined and Panamanian officials said that they expected to find more weapons and military equipment beneath the 10,00 tonnes of sugar. Panama has demanded that the United Nations investigate if the ship was in violation of the sanctions that prohibit any country from supplying arms to North Korea.
Cuba admitted – only after the discovery of the materials – that the ship was indeed carrying cargo other than sugar. It attempted to try to defuse a potentially uncomfortable accusation of illegal arms trafficking by claiming that the weapons actually belonged to Cuba and were being sent to North Korea for maintenance and repair.
The ship’s North Korean crew has been detained and charged with endangering Panama.