How bad was this botched attempt at an arms sale? Panama initially inspected the Chong Chon Gang because they suspected the crew of smuggling drugs. Instead, they discovered a cache of arms that could touch off another standoff between Washington and Havana over missiles:
The president of Panama says a North Korean ship has been caught trying to smuggle sophisticated missile equipment through the Panama Canal.
Speaking on Radio Panama, Ricardo Martinelli said the ship was stopped on the Atlantic coast of Panama because it was suspected it was carrying drugs.
He said it was found to have other cargo of greater concern when it was searched.
“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,” he said.
“The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal.”
The ship was actually going back to North Korea with the arms on board, after leaving port from Cuba. That adds another bizarre element to the case. Pyongyang doesn’t import its missile technology, at least not from half a world away; they develop most of it themselves, with at least tacit support from its Chinese patrons. North Korea is an exporter of missile technology. Did they try to make a sale to Cuba, and fail at it? Are these returns for defects?
As CNN reports, this isn’t the first time that Pyongyang has been caught violating UN sanctions against its arms sales:
The analyst raises the question of whether the ship merely made a port stop in Cuba to do other business, but that seems unlikely. If you’re smuggling arms illegally, you don’t make extra stops before closing the deal — especially going this far out of the way and through the Panama Canal, where it’s certain that inspections will be made. If Cuba is buying missiles (if indeed that’s what they are), then those missiles will have only one target in mind, and the US will have to act to eliminate that threat. But even that seems like an odd move for the Castro brothers at this point, who have the friendliest administration they’ve faced in Washington in decades, if ever.