Panama has seized a North Korean-flagged ship carrying what appeared to be ballistic missiles and other arms that had set sail from Cuba on its way to the Pacific.
Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli said the ship had been headed for North Korea.
Mr Martinelli said the undeclared military cargo appeared to include missiles and non-conventional arms and the ship was violating United Nations resolutions against arms trafficking.
The president said on his Twitter account that the arms were “hidden in containers underneath the cargo of sugar”.
He offered no details, but posted a photo of what appeared to be a green tubular object sitting inside a cargo container or the ship’s hold.
Mr Martinelli said: “This material not being declared and Panama being a neutral country, a country in peace … we feel very worried about this war material and we don’t know what else will have … passed through the Panama Canal.”
Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the seized ship was called Chong Chon Gang and has been on the institute’s suspect list for some time.
He said the ship had been caught before for trafficking narcotics and small arms ammunition. It was stopped in 2010 in Ukrainian waters, and was attacked by pirates 400 miles off the coast of Somalia in 2009.
The institute has also been interested in the ship because of a stop it made in 2009 in Tartus – a Syrian port city hosting a Russian naval base.
Mr Griffiths also said the institute earlier this year reported to the UN a discovery it made of a flight from Cuba to North Korea that travelled via central Africa.
“Given the history of North Korea, Cuban military co-operation and now this latest seizure, we find this flight more interesting,” he said. “After this incident there should be renewed focus on North Korean-Cuban links.”
Mr Martinelli told RPC radio that the 35 North Koreans on the boat resisted police efforts to take the ship to the Caribbean port of Manzanillo. The crew was later taken into custody.
He added that the captain had a heart attack and also tried to commit suicide during the operation. He said authorities had been tipped off that the ship might be carrying drugs.
Defence consulting firm IHS Jane’s Intelligence identified the equipment shown in the images as an RSN-75 “Fan Song” fire control radar for the SA-2 family of surface-to-air missiles.
“One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade,” it said. “In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services.”
Two weeks ago the North Korean armed forces chief of staff, Kim Kyok-sik, visited Cuba and met president Raul Castro, Cuban news media reported.
Mr Griffiths said that against the context of Mr Kim’s visit to Cuba, a seizure of arms on a North Korean vessel that had recently departed from Cuba would not be entirely surprising.
North Korea is already under tough sanctions enacted by the UN, the United States and the European Union, including a UN ban on all arms exports due to North Korea’s controversial nuclear weapons programme.
Previous violations of sanctions included North Korean shipments of arms-related material to Syria in November 2010, according to a UN report in May.
Sanctions were toughened after the country’s nuclear test in February. It has vowed to continue developing nuclear weapons, saying it fears a US attack.
Shipping data obtained by research group IHS Maritime showed the Chong Chon Gang arrived at the southern end of the Panama Canal on 31 May. It passed through on 1 June, with a stated destination of Havana, Cuba. After that it disappeared from the tracking system. It reappeared in Manzanillo, Panama, on 11 July. IHS said there were indications it had changed cargo in the interim.