Here's what North Korea tried to smuggle through Panama


View of the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang at Manzanillo harbour in Colon, 90 km from Panama City, on Aug. 14, 2013.


Rodrigo Arangua

In July a North Korean vessel named the Chong Chon Gang, shipping through the Panama Canal, was seized on suspicion of drug smuggling. No illicit substances were found under some 10,000 tons of sugar and spare plastic bags.

However, authorities did unearth a horde of fighter jet parts, rocket propelled grenades, night vision equipment, small arms, ammunition and a 57mm anti-tank gun, according to a North Korea analysis group.

It's the latest story in Pyongyang’s never-ending attempt to bypass international sanctions that bar the military-first nation from arms dealing.

North Korea has managed to detonate three nuclear bombs underground (spurring even tighter sanctions), though they have yet to develop long-range ballistic missile capability, possibly because of the arms embargo.

Twenty-five containers were discovered inside the ship, more than previously reported, according to a recent report by Panamanian authorities and the United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime Container Control Program.

The North Korean shipment was quickly linked to Cuba. Officials from Havana say they were only sending the military equipment to North Korea for repairs - a claim very few believe.

The shipment was not “to be repaired and returned to Cuba,” reported 38 North, a website run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The website goes on to say that the incident is just the latest in a long record of attempts by North Korea to illegally obtain MiG engines and aircraft, with similar incidents reported in 2009 and 1999.

There's a lot the seizure can teach the world about North Korea. As Hugh Griffiths, head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's program on illicit trafficking, told the Associated Press: It "tells us the North Koreans are pretty desperate when it comes to air force procurement. They are scraping the bottom of the barrel."

On Wednesday, a delegation from North Korea arrived in Panama to see 35 sailors who had been arrested along with the ship. The crew could face a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison on arms trafficking charges.