North Korean ship was carrying sugar donation, Cuba told Panama
- When a
North Korean ship carrying Cuban arms was
seized last week in Panama on suspicion of
smuggling drugs, Cuba first said it was
loaded with sugar for the people of North
Korea, according to a Panamanian official
familiar with the matter.
Cuban officials were quick to request the
ship be released, pledging there were no
drugs on board, and made no mention of the
weapons which two days later were found
hidden in the hold under 220,000 sacks of
brown sugar, the official told Reuters.
"They said it was all a big
misunderstanding," the official said, speaking
on condition of anonymity.
Cuba declined to comment on the official's
Questions still surround the cargo of sugar
and what Cuba called "obsolete" Soviet-era
weapons which it said it was sending halfway
around the world to be repaired in North
The discovery has put the already isolated
Asian nation under increased diplomatic
pressure because the cargo is suspected of
being in breach of a U.N. arms embargo
against Pyongyang over its nuclear and
ballistic missile program.
For Cuba, the benefits of smuggling out-of-
date weapons to North Korea did not seem
to make up for the potential pitfalls, experts
"It's baffling. It's hard to believe Cuba would
risk so much for so little," said Frank Mora,
the Pentagon's senior official for Latin
America during president Obama's first term.
Panamanian officials say the shipment was
probably part of an arms-for-sugar exchange
aimed at refurbishing Cuba's aging air
"We understand it was a barter deal, arms
for sugar, that's what our intelligence
sources are telling us," said the Panamanian
official familiar with the investigation.
A U.S. official confirmed that one of the
theories being studied is that it may have
been a barter deal.
While Cuba needs to upgrade its arsenal,
Mora and others say, the botched smuggling
operation was so clumsy and ill-conceived
that it appeared out of character for the
usually circumspect and highly disciplined
Nevertheless, it may not have been the first
Security experts say five North Korean-
flagged vessels have transited through the
Panama Canal in the last three years. One
ship, the O Un Chong Nyon Ho, passed
through the canal and docked in Havana in
"It's interesting that this kind of relationship
exists between Cuba and North Korea," said
Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the
University of Miami and former consultant to
Panama's intelligence service.
"It shows that both Cuba and North Korea
are quite isolated and are seeking some
solace in each other's commercial and
diplomatic embraces. They have few
alternatives and they don't have any hard
cash," he said.
A United Nations team is due to arrive in
Panama on August 5 to inspect the ship's
hold after the sugar has been unloaded.
Pyongyang has asked for the ship and crew
to be returned but Panama dismissed the
request after the U.S. government strongly
backed its decision to seize the vessel.
A Panamanian frigate on routine patrol
stopped the 155-meter (510-foot) Chong
Chon Gang off the country's Atlantic coast
last week after it had left Cuba and was
nearing the northern entrance to the Panama
Canal, bound for North Korea.
Officers on the frigate noticed the ship was
not issuing a transponder signal as required
by maritime law, and suspected it was
smuggling drugs, according to Panama's
The ship was boarded after the captain
refused to stop. The crew sabotaged the
ship's electrical system and the bilge pumps,
officials say, in a possible effort to scuttle
Afterward, the ship's 35 crew members were
arrested and charged with attempting to
smuggle undeclared arms through the canal.
Panama says they have not been cooperating
with authorities, choosing to remain silent
Following the vessel's seizure, Cuban officials
contacted Panama and made a request on
Saturday that it be released and allowed to
continue its journey.
"At that time we had no idea what was on
board," said the Panamanian official familiar
with the matter. "They said it was a donation
of sugar to the people of North Korea."
Panamanian security officials discovered the
weaponry hidden under sugar sacks on
Monday. It was not until the next evening
that Cuba said it was loaded with 240 tons
of Soviet-era missile equipment, MiG fighter
jets and other arms.
Cuba has not said a word since. The Foreign
Ministry did not respond to requests for
comment on Friday.
"That's unusual. They never stay silent when
they feel under attack. It looks like someone
screwed up," said Mora, who is now the head
of the Latin American and Caribbean Center
at Florida International University.
(Editing by Dave Graham and Mohammad