The Panamanian authorities impounded a rusting North Korean freighter on a voyage from Cuba toward the Panama Canal and back to its home country, and said the ship was carrying missile system components cloaked in a cargo of sugar. The arms would appear to represent a significant violation of United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea.
President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama, who announced the seizure late Monday in a radio interview, posted a photograph in a Twitter message of what he described as “sophisticated missile equipment” found in the cargo hold of the vessel, the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang, a 36-year-old freighter that has rarely plied the waters of the Western Hemisphere.
Mr. Martinelli and other Panamanian officials said the vessel’s 35 crew members were taken into custody after they resisted efforts to redirect the vessel to the Panamanian port of Manzanillo, at the Atlantic end of the canal, and that the captain tried to commit suicide after the ship was detained. The captain’s condition was unclear.
The president said the ship would undergo a thorough inspection to look for any more contraband. “We’re going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside,” he said. “You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.”
José Raúl Mulino, Panama’s minister of security, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that the suspect cargo had been found in two containers and that “evidently, they are armaments.” Mr. Mulino said all the sugar sacks aboard would be removed before the ship could be completely investigated.
The crew members were detained and taken to a naval base after they disconnected crane cables aboard their ship, in what Mr. Mulino called an act of “rebellion and sabotage.”
Mr. Martinelli said the ship had been stopped initially on suspicion of carrying narcotics. But it is unusual for Panama Canal authorities to detain or search any ship that is merely passing through the waterway and not stopping in Panama to load or unload cargo.
As of midday Tuesday there was no comment on the ship seizure by officials from either North Korea or Cuba. The two countries, known for their antipathy to the United States, have formed close bonds over the years, partly as a consequence of an American-led effort to ostracize them internationally, North Korea in particular.
The United Nations has imposed broad sanctions on North Korea that seek to curtail its ability to export and import weaponry, particularly missile components and technology. Earlier this month, the United States blacklisted a general in Myanmar, Thein Htay, for buying military goods from North Korea.
American officials say North Korea’s arms trade has helped finance the country’s nuclear and missile ambitions. In February, the North carried out its third nuclear test, a detonation that led to a tightened round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and supported by North Korea’s longtime ally and benefactor, China.
The seizure comes as Panama and South Korea, the North’s sworn enemy, have been strengthening ties and exploring a possible free trade agreement.
At the same time, North Korea and Cuba have been further strengthening ties as well. Two weeks ago the North Korean armed forces chief of staff, Kim Kyok-sik, visited Cuba and met with President Raul Castro, Cuban news media reported. Such a visit by a high-ranking North Korea official like Mr. Kim did not go unnoticed elsewhere.
“There are very few states where the North Korean chief of staff is welcomed for a high-level meeting,” Hugh Griffiths, an international arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Griffiths said that against the context of Mr. Kim’s visit to Cuba, a seizure of arms on a North Korean vessel that had recently departed from Cuba would not be entirely surprising.
Still, he said, it was unusual that this particular vessel was in the area. He said the ship’s itinerary history showed that it had spent most of its working life in Asian and European waters, and the last known time it had been to Panama was in 2002.