Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli on Monday said that a North Korean ship captain tried to kill himself after the vessel was stopped en route from Cuba and found to have suspected missile material on board.
Outlining a dramatic sequence of events, Martinelli said the ship was targeted by drug enforcement officials as it approached the Panama Canal and was taken into port, but a search revealed cargo of far greater concern.
The vessel’s estimated 35-man crew also rioted when police stepped aboard, according to Martinelli, who said the suspicious goods were found hidden in a consignment of sugar.
“The world needs to sit up and take note: You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” he told Radio Panama listeners. “We had suspected this ship, which was coming from Cuba and headed to North Korea, might have drugs aboard, so it was brought into port for search and inspection.”
Initial reports said the ship was boarded on Friday last week.
“When we started to unload the shipment of sugar, we located containers that we believe to be sophisticated missile equipment, and that is not allowed,” Martinelli said.
The ship, named Chong Chon Gang, is being held, as are the crew, who not only resisted the approach from the Panamanian authorities, but attempted to sabotage the search, he said.
“The captain has tried to commit suicide, and the crew rioted” during the operation, Martinelli said.
The boat was headed back to North Korea when it was stopped and taken to Manzanillo, east of the Atlantic opening of the Panama Canal, which is a major cargo distribution center.
Cuba is the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, and a rare ally of also-isolated Pyongyang.
The vessel “aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew from Friday afternoon,” Panamanian Minister of Security Jose Raul Mulino told the radio station.
Javier Caraballo, an anti-drugs enforcement official, said: “Until now we have not found drugs in the boat, we found military equipment.”
Presidential spokesman Luis Eduardo Camacho said later that “at first glance,” the cargo appeared to include missiles, but an examination of the ship by specialists may take as long as a week.
North Korea defiantly carried out its third nuclear weapons test in February and then threatened to attack the US, in language that was shrill even by its standards.
The North has for decades had a program to develop missiles of all types. In December last year, it successfully launched a three-stage rocket, which placed a satellite in orbit. Pyongyang said the operation was a peaceful scientific mission, but the launch was widely condemned as a covert ballistic missile test banned under UN resolutions.
It is unclear whether the North has the technology to build a nuclear warhead for a missile.
UN sanctions bar the transport of all weapons to or from North Korea, apart from small arms. Several of the country’s ships have been searched in recent years.
In July 2009, a North Korean ship heading to Myanmar, the Kang Nam 1, was followed by the US Navy due to suspicions it was carrying weapons. It turned around and headed back home.