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 the weapons equipment on Twitter “so that the world knows that you can’t transfer non-declared, war-like material through the Panama Canal.”