One of the missile systems aboard the Chong Chon Gang. Photo courtesy of May Lee.
On May the 31st, a North Korean cargo ship entered the southern end of the Panama Canal. A weathered old rust-bucket known as the Chong Chon Gang, the ship was passing through a well-worn route for global trade between Asia and the Americas, the Panama Canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through the thinnest point in Central America.
The following day, the boat emerged at the Caribbean end of the canal, heading northeast towards Cuba. As it approached Cuba it turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder, a device that publicly broadcasts the position of ships. The Chong Chon Gang had "gone dark".
Last week the ship had re-emerged, heading away from Cuba and back towards the canal, through which it would have to pass to return to North Korea. Panamanian authorities, used to flagging down dodgy ships from Colombia in the south and Costa Rica in the north, stopped the boat, apparently under suspicion of drug smuggling. And it was for good reason; North Korea is often linked with trafficking and is thought to manufacture heroin on a large scale, using the profits to gather much-needed foreign currency. The specific boat itself had even had brushes with the law, most notably in 2010 when Ukrainian officials busted it carrying a “heroin substitute” and untaxed alcohol, cigarettes and ammo onboard.
Back in Panama, the authorities hopped onto the Chong Chon Gang, prompting a typically reserved reaction from the North Korean crew: the captain feigned a heart attack and tried to slit his own throat. The rest of the 35-man crew fought back, before sabotaging the ship by hacking away at the cables on its cargo cranes. Once they had subdued the crew, the Panamanians found a shipping container hidden beneath 250,000 sacks of sugar. Last Monday night, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a hazy picture of what they found, claiming: “Panama has captured a North Korean flagged ship from Cuba with undeclared war cargo.”
MIlitary buffs at defence company IHS Jane's identified the green tube pictured in the container as an SNR-75 "Fan Song" fire control radar – a device that spots enemy aircraft and guides ground-based missiles towards them. The Cubans, presumably worried about their massive breach of UN Security Council Resolutions on arms trading with North Korea, quickly claimed the Fan Song was off to the Hermit Kingdom for repairs. Oh, then they mentioned that the ship also just happened to be carrying nine missiles, another anti-air system, two Russian MiG-21 fighter planes and 15 MiG engines (MiG being a Russian military aircraft design bureau, primarily focused on fighter jets).
The Chong Chon Gang, currently impounded in the port city of Manzanillo. Photo courtesy of Delfia Cortez.
Taking a break from its usual comprehensive analysis of mushroom farms and toothpaste, the state-owned Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang was quick to explain away the shipment: “As recognised by the fair-minded public opinion in the world,” it said on Tuesday, “the missile force of the DPRK is a just means for self-defence to protect the sovereignty of the country and security of its people from the US deep-rooted nuclear blackmail.”
With the ship sabotaged by its crew, it’ll take until next week to remove all the sugar by hand and reveal the full extent of the arsenal in its belly. But, even before all the facts are made clear, the incident is a glimpse into North Korea’s desperate global struggle for weapons and hard cash. Last month it emerged that officers from the Korean People's Army were working for Bashar al-Assad, providing logistics help and perhaps even chemical weapons to Syria, likely in return for cash. North Koreans have worked on Iran’s nuclear programme, they've sold rockets to Pakistan and they've even helped the Congolese government with its Uranium mining efforts, presumably in return for nuclear material – although there are no reports to confirm that.
North Korea also used to regularly supply medium-range missiles to Burma, but the government there agreed to cut weapons ties with Pyongyang last year. So it’s highly likely that the Chong Chon Gang is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to North Korean arms trading.
Cuban state media owning up to the existence of the hidden cargo.
Analysts from IHS Jane's reckon a similar North Korean ship made the same trip last year, and a close look at the KCNA’s records from early June reveals “talks between the DPRK and Cuban military delegations”, during which they “exchanged views on boosting friendly relations”. As with any diplomatic tete-a-tete, the tangible outcome of those "friendly relations" seems to be the exchange of fighter jets and a couple of anti-aircraft missiles systems.
According to James Hardy of IHS Jane's, the contents of the ship may hint at North Korea’s current priorities: "North Korea has been shopping around for MiG parts for a while now, so it looks like they were trying to get hold of parts to keep their planes in the air." That theory is backed up by a case early last year in which a Mongolian Air Force general was busted trying to sell MiG parts to Pyongyang. He was only caught when he failed to deliver and scarpered with the money, prompting complaints from North Korea. But this most recent case is interesting, says James, partly because this is the first time Cuba has been caught red-handed trading weapons with the their comrades in the east.
James says North Korea are “really feeling the pinch” from newly beefed-up sanctions, along with the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Park in April – an important source of income for the cash-strapped nation. It’s possible, he says, “that Cuba is telling the truth about repairing the anti-air kit”, adding, “this could be some kind of barter deal – ‘We’ll give you some old MiGs if you upgrade or repair our surface-to-air missiles.'"
Photo by John Pavelka.
The BBC has suggested that North Korea could have just flown technicians to Cuba to do the work, but James points out that movement of weapons experts between the two states would probably be noticed by the US and the UN Security Council. “This might be part of a bigger package of MiGs and related stuff,” he said. “North Korea is really having trouble maintaining this ageing air force.”
For now, Pyongyang is fuming, and the Chong Chon Gang remains moored at the Panamanian port city of Manzanillo, awaiting a visit from British experts called in by the Panamanians. A team from the UN Security Council is expected shortly after. Cuba, for its part, has since reaffirmed a commitment to, “Peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law”, despite its flagrant rule-breaking.
Meanwhile, Panamanian workers continue to shift the quarter of a million bags of sugar covering the illicit shipping containers. Assuming the MiGs are down there, the shipment will prove a clear breach of UN sanctions. Not that it’ll mean much – Cuba is already blockaded by the US, and North Korea by a large chunk of the Western world. Either way, any ship flying the red star flag had better watch its back.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty
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