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Panama says it found suspected weapons on N. Korean ship

Published July 16, 2013 8:12 pm

Security • Parts are likely radar for surface-to-air missile system banned under U.N. sanctions.
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Panama City • A North Korean ship carrying weapon-system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is barred by United Nations sanctions from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles, Panamanian officials said Tuesday.

The ship appeared to be transporting a radar-control system for a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system, according to a private defense analysis firm that examined a photograph posted on Twitter by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.

Martinelli said the ship was carrying missiles and other arms, but he provided no specific evidence or details about the cargo. He said on his Twitter account that the arms were "hidden in containers underneath the cargo of sugar."

The photo posted by the president shows a green tube that appears to be a horizontal antenna for the SNR-75 "Fan Song" radar, which is used to guide missiles fired by the SA-2 air-defense system found in former Warsaw Pact and Soviet-allied nations, said Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane's Intelligence.

Jane's isn't sure where the system in the photo was manufactured but the radar would be useful to North Korea as part of a air defense network, Ashdown said.

One container buried under sugar sacks contained radar equipment that appears to be designed for use with air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles, said Belsio Gonzalez, director of Panama's National Aeronautics and Ocean Administration. He said Panamanian authorities expected to find the missiles themselves in containers that must still be searched.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of increasingly tougher sanctions against North Korea since its first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006.

Under current sanctions, all U.N. member states are prohibited from directly or indirectly supplying, selling or transferring all arms, missiles or missile systems and the equipment and technology to make them to North Korea, with the exception of small arms and light weapons.

The most recent resolution, approved in March after Pyongyang's latest nuclear test, authorizes all countries to inspect cargo in or transiting through their territory that originated in North Korea or is destined for North Korea, "If the state concerned has credible information that provides reasonable grounds to believe the cargo contains items the supply, sale, transfer or export of which is prohibited" by Security Council resolutions.

The governments of North Korea and Cuba made no public comment on the case.