North Korean ship carrying hidden 'missile equipment' detained after leaving Cuba

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By Ian Johnston and F. Brinley Bruton, NBC News

A North Korean cargo ship was stopped near the Panama Canal and searched on suspicion of drugs, but it was carrying something sweeter — the apparent parts of a surface-to-air missile system, hidden inside containers of brown sugar.

The State Department said any shipment of arms or related material aboard the freighter would violate at least three U.N. resolutions.

The ship was on its way home from Cuba. Panamanian authorities said the captain of the ship tried to kill himself after officials boarded it Monday and began searching the containers that were supposed to contain the sugar.

Independent defense analysts and U.S. officials said Tuesday that the equipment appeared to be a radar control system for surface-to-air missiles, and that the behavior of the crew suggested the equipment was being shipped covertly.

But Gordon Chang, the author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World,” said it didn’t matter what was in the cargo hold.

“What’s important is that the North Koreans were able to smuggle dangerous equipment into our hemisphere,” he said.

Panama said it seized the ship on suspicion of drugs as it headed for the Panama Canal. Reuters reported that Panama had also detained 35 members of the crew.

President Ricardo Martinelli went so far as to post a picture of one piece of seized equipment 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.

A State Department spokesman said that the United States supported Panama’s decision to seize the ship and offered Washington’s help if Panama needs it.

In a statement from Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officials said the vessel was carrying "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons -- two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century -- to be repaired and returned to Cuba."

"The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for International Law," the statement added.  

Staff at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a respected military affairs magazine, said the picture tweeted by Panama's president appeared to show a radar system for surface-to-air missiles — specifically an SNR-75 Fan Song fire-control radar system for a family of missiles known as SA-2.

U.S. officials confirmed the model to NBC News. The SA-2 is a Soviet-era system in Cuba since the 1960s and was the class of missile used to shoot down American pilot Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960.

The magazine said one possibility was that Cuba was sending the equipment to North Korea for an upgrade, and that it sent along the cargo of sugar as a payment for the services.

But under a second scenario, the magazine said, the equipment might have been on its way to North Korea to fortify the country’s existing air defense network, which is dense but based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars.

Jane’s said that North Korea’s high-altitude SA-2 surface-to-air missiles “are ineffective in a modern electronic warfare environment.”

Richard Meade, editor of the British shipping journal Lloyd’s List, said the detained vessel was called Chong Chon Gang. He described it as a general cargo ship owned by the Chongchongang Shipping Co., outside Pyongyang.

Meade said he was still checking the Chong Chon Gang’s movements — the Lloyd’s List Intelligence service tracks ships’ movements via satellite — but initial information showed the vessel was in China on Jan. 25, then Russia on April 12.

It then arrived on the Pacific coast of Panama on May 30, and 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, possibly because its cargo was heavier.

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 satellite tracking sometimes fails in the area, dense with maritime traffic.

The El Universal newspaper 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.

Last October, North Korea claimed that the U.S. mainland was “within the scope” of its missiles, although military officials have told Congress that the United States could intercept a North Korean missile.

NBC News Senior Investigative Producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed.