Skip to main content

Cuba: 'Obsolete' weapons on ship were going to North Korea for repair

By Mariano Castillo. Catherine E. Shoichet and Patrick Oppmann, CNN
July 17, 2013 -- Updated 1352 GMT (2152 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Panama is still investigating; seeks help from U.S., U.K., U.N.
  • Anti-aircraft missile systems and missiles were in the shipment, Cuba says
  • Panamanian search of North Korean ship results in "violent" confrontation, official says
  • The captain suffered a heart attack and tried to commit suicide, officials say

(CNN) -- It was a mystery that Panama's president said his country was struggling to solve.

What was the massive military equipment hidden under hundreds of thousands of sacks of brown sugar on a North Korean boat? Where did it come from? And where was it going before investigators seized the vessel near the Panama Canal?

Hours after Panama said it would ask U.S. and British officials for help solving the puzzle, Cuba gave an answer Tuesday night.

In addition to 10,000 tons of sugar, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said, the shipment contained "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 foreign ministry said.

Military equipment found on a North Korean ship on Monday, July 16, sits on board the ship docked in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo International Terminal. Cuba's Foreign Ministry said the ship contained "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" sent to North Korea "to be repaired and returned to Cuba." Military equipment found on a North Korean ship on Monday, July 16, sits on board the ship docked in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo International Terminal. Cuba's Foreign Ministry said the ship contained "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" sent to North Korea "to be repaired and returned to Cuba."
Weapons found on North Korean ship
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
Photos: Weapons found on N.K. ship Photos: Weapons found on N.K. ship
Weapons seized from North Korean ship
Defecting from North Korea

"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty," the statement said. "The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law."

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

The Cuban government's revelation, read on state television, is the latest chapter in an international drama that has all the elements of a thriller: a violent confrontation on a detained ship, missiles hidden onboard, a heart attack and an attempted suicide.

A glance at seizures of North Korea weapons shipments

Panamanian authorities spotted the shipment during an anti-drug inspection late Monday.

Few details of the confrontation were available, but the ship's North Korean crew of 35 resisted inspection and arrest for days, said Panama's security minister, Jose Raul Mulino. He described it as "violent," saying that the crew tried to sabotage the ship by cutting cables on the cranes that would be used to unload cargo.

As it is, Mulino said, authorities now have to remove 255,000 sacks of brown sugar by hand.

During the struggle with Panamanian authorities, the ship's captain suffered an apparent heart attack and then tried to kill himself, according to President Ricardo Martinelli.

The crew also refused to raise the ship's anchor, Mulino said, forcing Panamanian authorities to cut the anchor loose to move the ship.

Panama's public ministry ordered the crew's detention, and authorities have since spoken with crew members about their travel plans. Crew members said they had left Cuba and headed toward Panama, aiming to arrive in North Korea in 51 days.

As authorities inspected the vessel, the situation was intriguing enough that Martinelli himself traveled to the ship to take a look -- with reporters in tow.

Is it a missile? a reporter asked.

"Maybe," Martinelli said. "I am not familiar with that, but it would be good if such things didn't pass through Panama, which is a country that loves peace and not war."

The president tweeted a photo of what he saw: a green octagon-shaped tube with a cone at its end and a similar-looking piece of equipment behind it.

Late Tuesday night, Mulino said the Cuban government's detailed announcement describing the military equipment had caught Panamanian officials by surprise.

Investigators have only combed through one of the ship's five compartments, he said. They are asking the United States and the United Kingdom to send teams to help them identify the weapons, and will invite a special commission from the United Nations to determine whether the shipment violates the organization's North Korea weapons ban.

Even with many unanswered questions, Mulino said, the Cuban government's statement explains one thing.

"Now we clearly understand the suicidal attitude of the captain," he said, "and the rebellion and the rioting of the crew."

Kim Jong Un tours coast with $7M yacht
Weapons seized from North Korean ship

U.N. official: 'We are following it closely'

Earlier Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the U.N. secretary-general said Panama had not officially reported the incident to the United Nations. If that happens, a U.N. panel of experts would review the incident.

"If it is confirmed that the vessel was carrying arms or related materiel and that the shipment was part of a purchase or sale to or from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, then there would indeed be a breach of the U.N. sanctions regime relating to that country," spokeswoman Morana Song said.

Members of the U.N.'s North Korea sanctions committee have seen media reports about the boat and are awaiting a formal notification with details from Panama.

"We are following it closely," said Jacques Flies, a spokesman for Luxembourg Ambassador Sylvie Lucas, who chairs the committee.

Authorities seized the vessel and the undeclared haul in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo.

U.S. officials say they tracked ship

Investigators spotted the boat going through the Panama Canal to Havana and then back toward the canal, according to two senior U.S. officials who said the United States had been tracking the ship along with the Panamanians for some time.

A glance at seizures of North Korea weapons shipments

Another senior U.S. official said the United States had been tracking the ship for several days and knew that Panamanian authorities were going to stop it.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell declined to describe U.S. interactions with Panama concerning the ship, but noted that the vessel has a checkered past connected with drug smuggling.

"Public reports from 2010 and also a U.N. panel of experts report from 2012 cite this history," he said Tuesday. "So this vessel has a well-known history in this regard."

Concerns over Cuba

Cuban state media reported late last month that North Korean army Chief of Staff Gen. Kim Kyok Sik visited the island and had high-level meetings, including one with Cuban leader Raul Castro.

In the United States, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, described this week's incident as "serious and alarming" and a "wake-up call" for the Obama administration to avoid normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba.

Some analysts described the situation as a troubling sign that North Korea could be supplying Cuba with weapons.

"This is a country which is just 90 miles away from American shores," Forbes.com columnist Gordon Chang told CNN's "Erin Burnett: OutFront."

"Now, if they can smuggle missile radar into Cuba, you know, God knows what else they can put there. We do not need a replay of the Cuban missile crisis, this time with the North Koreans' fingers on the triggers instead of the Soviets."

Chang, author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World," said the Panamanian president's dramatic description of how the ship's crew members handled the incident didn't surprise him.

"They do not want anybody on their ships," he said. "Whether it's carrying melons or nuclear technology, the North Koreans would act pretty much the same way."

North and South Korea inch toward reopening joint complex

A history of weapons shipments

This isn't the first time North Korea has been linked to shipping suspected of transporting weapons materials.

In 2011, the U.S. Navy tried -- and failed -- to gain permission to board a ship in the South China Sea suspected of carrying illicit weapons technology to Myanmar, the Pentagon said. The Belize-flagged MV Light was believed to have been manned by a North Korean crew, the Pentagon said. Under U.S. Navy surveillance, the vessel eventually turned around and headed to North Korea.

In 2007, the Pentagon confirmed that several shipments of suspected weapons technology had left North Korea destined for Syria. The Pentagon said some of the material was believed to have been high-grade metals that could be used to build missiles or solid-fuel rockets.

CNN reported in 2011 that an unpublished U.N. report claimed North Korea was trading banned weapons technology with several countries, including Iran.

CNN's Mariano Castillo and Catherine E. Shoichet wrote this story in Atlanta. CNN's Patrick Oppmann reported from Cuba; journalist Castalia Pascual reported from Panama; CNN's Adam Levine, Elise Labott and Barbara Starr contributed from Washington; and CNN's Fernando del Rincon, Kevin Wang, David Simpson and Thom Patterson contributed to this report from Atlanta.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)
As soon as word broke that "The Interview" will hit some theaters, celebrations erupted across social media -- including from the stars of the film.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Did a rogue hacker -- or the U.S. government -- cut the cord for the regime's Internet?
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0822 GMT (1622 HKT)
The United States and North Korea have long been locked in a bitter cycle of tensions. But the current cyber conflict may be especially hard to predict.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
A defector from the North Korean government says the country's cyberwarfare is more dangerous than its nuclear weaponry.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
North Korea's fury over "The Interview" appears to have taken the state's oversensitivity to new extremes.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang in 2013. Here's what happened next.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact on prisoners.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0559 GMT (1359 HKT)
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of the beatings and starvation he endured while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 0543 GMT (1343 HKT)
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 0851 GMT (1651 HKT)
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system" and citizens have "priceless political integrity," the country declared.
ADVERTISEMENT