Panamanian authorities seized a North Korean freighter carrying "sophisticated missile equipment" from Cuba as it tried to cross the Panama Canal. Analysts identified the equipment from photographs as the fire-control radar for an air defense system.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said in a radio interview that the equipment was found after several days' search, hidden by sacks of sugar. Photos he released on Twitter show large green tubes in a container.
Mr. Martinelli told Radio Panama that the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was headed to North Korea and that its captain tried to commit suicide when it was subjected to a search after a tip that it might be carrying drugs.
In Washington, the State Department said transporting air defense materiel to North Korea would be a violation of U.N. sanctions.
Neil Ashdown, an analyst with IHS Jane's, said the photos showed a fire-control radar — the "brains" of a surface-to-air missile system that targets aircraft and then fires a guided missile at it.
"The photos show the radar, there is no evidence at this point that any other components of the missile system were aboard," Mr. Ashdown said.
The search is continuing, said a U.S. consultant who advises Panamanian authorities.
"We found this one system so far, but it's going to take five to seven days to dig everything out," Steve Atkiss, a former chief of staff for U.S. Customs and Border Protection who is now a partner with the Washington-based Command Consulting Group, told Bloomberg News. "North Korea has a history of violating U.N. sanctions that prevent the sale of their weapons system."
Public records indicate the ship previously had been involved in low-level narcotics smuggling.
In 2010, the ship was searched by authorities in Ukraine, resulting in "the seizure of limited quantities of ammunition, narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, and other contraband goods," according to a U.N. sanctions report last year.
However, the report, compiled by a group of analysts to assess the sanctions, went on to say: "In the opinion of the relevant Ukrainian agencies, the small quantities uncovered did not suggest involvement of the authorities" in North Korea.
Mr. Martinelli said the drug tip came from Panamanian intelligence but wouldn't comment on reports that the information originally came from U.S. intelligence, saying only that Panama was "working with [its] international partners."
U.S. officials were similarly tight-lipped Tuesday.
"I'm not going to get into our private diplomatic discussions with the Panamanians or others," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. "But suffice it to say that we strongly support Panama's sovereign decision. We commend their actions. We are in touch with them. I'm not going to detail how we're in touch with them.
"We stand ready to cooperate with Panama should they request our assistance," Mr. Ventrell said.
Mr. Ashdown said the fire-control radar, designated Fan Song, is designed to work with a Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile, called the V-75 or SA-2 Guideline — a medium- to high-altitude air defense system still used by the Russians to protect large cities and other key sites.
Mr. Ashdown said North Korea uses the SA-2 family of anti-aircraft missiles and that the fire-control radar might be an upgrade for Pyongyang's air defense system.
But a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters said that is unlikely.
"If you look at what North Korea has in its air defense armory, that doesn't add up for us," the official said.
North Korea has been sanctioned repeatedly by the U.N. Security Council for its illegal nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, but it has proved adept at circumventing the embargo, which prohibits it from importing all forms of weaponry except small arms.
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