By Juan Zamorano
and Michael Weissenstein
PANAMA CITY: A North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is barred by United Nations sanctions from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles, Panamanian officials said Tuesday.
The ship appeared to be transporting a radar-control system for a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system, according to a private defense analysis firm that examined a photograph posted on Twitter by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.
Martinelli said the ship identified as the 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang was carrying missiles and other arms, but he provided no specific evidence or details about the cargo. He said on his Twitter account that the arms were “hidden in containers underneath the cargo of sugar.”
The photo posted by the president shows a green tube that appears to be a horizontal antenna for the SNR-75 “Fan Song” radar, which used to guide missiles fired by the SA-2 air-defense system found in former Warsaw Pact and Soviet-allied nations, said Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Intelligence.
Jane’s isn’t sure where the system in the photo was manufactured but the radar would be useful to North Korea as part of a dense air defense network, Ashdown said.
“It is possible that this [was] being sent to North Korea to update its high altitude air-defense capabilities,” he said.
One container buried under sugar sacks contained radar equipment that appears to be designed for use with air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles, said Belsio Gonzalez, director of Panama’s National Aeronautics and Ocean Administration. He said Panamanian authorities expected to find the missiles themselves in containers that must still be searched. An Associated Press journalist who gained access to the rusting ship saw green shipping containers that had been covered by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of white sacks marked “Cuban Raw Sugar.”
The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of increasingly tougher sanctions against North Korea since its first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006.
The governments of North Korea and Cuba made no public comment on the case.