Skip to main content

Search of North Korean ship is slow process

By Castalia Pascual, for CNN
updated 8:19 PM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
Panamanian inspectors are examining containers on a North Korean ship after weapons were found, officials say.
Panamanian inspectors are examining containers on a North Korean ship after weapons were found, officials say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Captain, crew face weapons trafficking charges
  • Investigators have emptied only one of five cargo holds on the ship
  • They have found military weapons in shipping containers
  • Cubans say the equipment was bound for North Korea for repair

Panama City, Panama (CNN) -- Four days have passed since Panamanian authorities discovered undeclared military weapons hidden aboard a North Korean ship, and the painstaking process of examining the entire vessel is crawling at a snail's pace.

The ship has five cargo holds, only one of which has been emptied as of Thursday.

"The technicians on board have told us that this cargo was loaded in a way that makes it difficult to unload," Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said.

The North Korean crew had resisted the Panamanian authorities and cut the cables to the onboard cranes. Panamanian investigators brought their own cranes, but removing the containers inside the cargo holds has been an "odyssey," Mulino said.

Cuba: Weapons on N. Korean ship are ours
Cuba: Arms going to N. Korea for repair

The ship originated in Cuba, and the Cubans have admitted to owning the military equipment, claiming it was being sent to North Korea to be repaired and returned.

But many questions remain. If the weapons were not a secret, why were they hidden under sacks of sugar? Why the did the captain attempt to commit suicide?

A public prosecutor is charging the captain and 35 North Korean crew members with illegal possession of weapons and international arms trafficking, Panamanian government spokesman Eduardo Camacho said.

North Korean officials, meanwhile, asked for Panama to release the cargo ship and let the crew go.

Panama has formally asked the United Nations for guidance on how to handle the case.

"For us, it is important to finish this operation, wait for the United Nations to come, and they will decide" how to proceed, Mulino said. "Panama is completely transparent in this; we have no experience in dealing with this type of problem."

Because it is pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea is banned by the United Nations from importing and exporting most weapons.

Scene at the port

At the port of Manzanillo, inspectors opened shipping containers in front of reporters. Heavily armed troops stand guard.

In the first cargo hold, six shipping containers were found underneath sacks of brown sugar, in two stacks of three. The tops of some of the containers were caved in because of the weight of the sugar.

Inside the containers lies the military equipment.

Inspectors walked inside the containers, taking pictures.

Cuban officials have described the materiel as "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" sent to North Korea "to be repaired and returned to Cuba."

The equipment was manufactured in the mid-20th century and included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for this type of airplane, the Cuban foreign ministry said.

U.S. involved in investigation

The United States and Panama had been tracking the ship as it crossed the Panama Canal to Cuba and then back, two U.S. officials said.

And a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Wednesday that the United States would help in the investigation.

The Panamanians asked the United States for imaging equipment and technicians to fully examine the boat and determine what is on board, according to a U.S. official who declined to be identified because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.

Speculation has surged since Panama announced its find, with some warning that it was a troubling sign of weapons deals between North Korea and Cuba, and others disputing whether any dangers lay within the antiquated haul.

Cuba says the weapons are "obsolete." And experts who identified early Cold War relics such as the Soviet-designed SA-2 air defense system among the ship's cargo say that's not far from the truth.

"Today there is no reason for any Western pilot to be hit by an SA-2. If you get caught by one of them, you've done something bloody stupid, or you've got very bad luck," said James O'Halloran, editor of Jane's Land Based Air Defence and Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems. "No modern country wants to be seen with those."

But others saw the weapons haul as a more ominous sign.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a frequent critic of the Cuban government, described the weapons shipment as a "flagrant violation of multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions."

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet in Atlanta and journalist May Lee in Panama contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:49 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
British PM David Cameron has had the narrowest of political escapes.
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
British journalist John Cantlie hadn't been seen in nearly two years. Now, he's the latest hostage to be paraded out by ISIS.
The burial leader. The hospital gatekeeper. The disease detective. All telling powerful, stories from West Africa.
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Alibaba's IPO is unlike anything investors have ever seen and could threaten other online retailers. Maggie Lake reports.
updated 11:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Indian PM Narendra Modi has said al Qaeda will fail if it seeks to spread its terror network into his country.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
 Tennis Player Li Na attends the WTA Pre-Wimbledon Party as guests enjoy Ciroc Vodka presented by Dubai Duty Free at Kensington Roof Gardens on June 19, 2014 in London,
Asia's first grand slam singles champion Li Na has called time on her 15-year tennis career.
Jenson Button has some of quickest reactions ever shown at an advanced sports lab.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Creative companies with quirky ideas find new lending models advantageous.
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Even death couldn't part two skeletons excavated from a lost chapel in an English county, found with their fingers entwined.
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT