When law enforcement agents boarded a rusty, aging North Korean freighter making a rare journey down the Panama Canal last week, they had been tipped off that they would find narcotics, Panamanian officials said.
Instead, after a violent confrontation with the 35-member crew, they discovered a more unusual cargo hidden in its depths: a cache of Soviet-era weaponry concealed beneath more than 200,000 bags of Cuban brown sugar.
The freighter’s detention has thrown a light on the secretive deals North Korea is making, possibly in breach of United Nations sanctions, as it struggles for survival.
The voyage of the freighter Chong Chon Gang to Cuba, far from the Chinese waters where it normally operates, is not the first time a ship from the isolated communist country has followed that route.
North Korean vessels have made at least seven other trips to Cuba in the past few years, with three stopping at the same two ports as the Chong Chon Gang, according to two organizations that monitor North Korea, the Panamanian authorities and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Several of the freighters were operated or managed by Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), a Pyongyang-based company with links to the North Korean government, which is also the registered manager of the detained vessel, according to the Wisconsin Project, which uses ship tracking databases to follow North Korean and other vessels.
The journeys, made by ships that normally stay close to the Korean peninsula, are an indication that the Chong Chon Gang’s voyage may have been part of a wider, established trade route, amid an increasingly warm relationship between the two communist nations.
In a statement, Cuba said there was a “legitimate contract” for North Korea to repair and then return armaments, which they said included antiaircraft missile systems and two disassembled Mig-21s. The sugar on board was probably intended as payment for the work, according to monitors.
In the days before it was seized, the Chong Chon Gang had passed through the Panama Canal and called at two Cuban ports: Havana and Puerto Padre, a major sugar export center, according to the Wisconsin Project.
Another vessel, the Oun Chong Nyon Ho, made an almost identical voyage through the canal and to the same two Cuban ports in May 2012. It passed back through the Panamanian waterway without being searched. In May 2009, the North Korean- flagged Mu Du Bong went through the canal and stopped in Havana, Cuba’s capital city. Both are currently managed by OMM, according to the Wisconsin Project.
A third ship, the Po Thong Gang, traveled through the canal and called at Puerto Padre in April 2012. During the previous year, it had visited Havana and Santiago de Cuba, according to research by Matthew Godsey of the Wisconsin Project. It was linked to OMM until 2008 and is now registered to a different company at the same address, Godsey said.
Hugh Griffiths, a maritime arms trafficking expert based at SIPRI, said his monitoring database has recorded two further North Korean-linked ships that have docked in Cuba on three occasions in the past 18 months. Two of the trips stopped at both Havana and Puerto Padre, the two Cuban ports visited by the Chong Chon Gang and the Oun Chong Nyon Ho, he said.
Griffiths said there was a “definite possibility” that other ships had made the journey from North Korea to Cuba undetected by registering under false ownership or by turning off onboard satellite transponders to avoid being tracked, as the Chong Chon Gang appears to have done.
The OMM company is registered to a P.O. box number in the North Korean capital and has 17 ships that largely ply their trade in the waters around China. Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime, a consultancy firm, described it as the biggest state-owned shipping company in North Korea.
“It claims to have shipping agents in all the major [North Korean] ports as well as overseas, such as Dalian in China, Port Said in Egypt and Vladivostok in Russia,” he said.
OMM also owns a crew-training center and the Ryongnam Dockyard on North Korea’s west coast, which has reportedly been involved in the construction of military vessels, he said. OMM is also responsible for handling passport applications for all North Korean sailors.
Li said the Chong Chon Gang’s detention and voyages by other ships owned by OMM demonstrates that “some kind of ‘trade route’ no matter how slight, has been established between [North Korea] and Cuba.”
John Park, an expert on North Korea and associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said that the Chong Chon Gang’s voyage would not have been a “freelance-type transaction” but would have been part of a “broader revenue generation effort to essentially make money for the regime.”
Park said only the military was capable of carrying out repair work on the Cuban armaments, adding, “Given the contents of the consignment, it looks like it is a North Korean military-linked state trading company.”
Calls to the company’s listed phone number were disconnected a few seconds after being answered.
“The relationship between [North Korea] and Cuba is a lot closer than it used to be,” said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch. “There’s been a lot more contact and interactions between senior Cuban officials and senior North Korean officials in recent years.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said the interception in Panama is unlikely to disrupt those ties and North Korea would look for a new route. Repairing old weapons is one of the “few things that North Korea is good at,” he said. “I don’t think the North Koreans are going to give that up.”