Did Panama Just Narrowly Keep North Korea From Finalizing Nuclear Artillery?


On July 16, Panama detained the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean freighter passing through the Panama Canal en route from Cuba to North Korea. Officials had gained intelligence about suspicious contraband on the vessel and their search revealed armaments concealed under a cargo of sugar. Thus, this transaction indicates that North Korea may be increasing its acquisition of missile technology, furthering its nuclear artillery program.

Officials found a radar system aboard the Chong Chon Gang, increasing suspicions about North Korea. The system was identified as the SNR-75 "Fan Song" Fire Control Radar, which is a key component in guiding missiles to targets. The East Asian country is known for its experimentation with missile technology and nuclear artillery, trying to develop missiles that could target the United States. Nuclear artillery, on the other hand, has direct battlefield applications and could be used to attack South Korea or an invading force. If the Chong Chon Gang had reached its destination, North Korea could have gained the final component for its nuclear artillery program.

"The fire control radar equipment could have been en route to North Korea to augment Pyongyang's existing air defense network," said IHS Jane's Intelligence, a defense consultancy. "North Korea's air defense network is arguably one of the densest in the world, but it is also based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars."

This raises greater curiosity and suspicion as President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama and his officials contemplate this transaction between North Korea and Cuba. The theory offered by the IHS Jane's Intelligence weighs heavily on the reason behind this transaction as Cuba stated that the armaments aboard the freighter were obsolete and sent to North Korea for further modifications and enhancements. The cargo of sugar served as a payment for the East Asian country's services. Although this theory is plausible, the notion of North Korea attempting to augment their air defense network and further its nuclear artillery program weighs more heavily on the global consciousness.

"Honestly, this kind of military equipment can't go through the country while declaring that it is something else, especially hiding it as you can see here," said Martinelli. "We will continue to empty the entire ship to see what's in it, and the relevant authorities will determine what exactly is on this ship."

Another contributing element to the suspicions and main belief is the resistance from the crewmen. Officials ordered the crewmen to dock the freighter at the Port of Manzanillo, but the crewmen refused and conflict arose between the two groups. The conflict was avoidable since the crewmen could have cooperated with the officials, but insisted on defending the armaments. The conflict ended with Jose Raul Mulino, the Minister of Security for Panama, confirming that the crewmen were arrested and was detained for further investigation. This implies that acquiring this radar system for North Korea might have been the true mission for the crewmen. Refusing to witness its confiscation, the crewmen assumed that resistance was the only solution.

The "icing on the cake" is that the Chong Chon Gang was noticed and investigated after its departure from Cuba, but not before. "Matthew Godsey, editor of the Risk Report, a publication of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said the Chong Chon Gang may have traveled in the region undetected previously by turning off its satellite transponder, used by tracking services to monitor vessels for their own safety," said CNN.

This action indicates that this transaction may have been for North Korea's nuclear artillery program and air defense network as opposed to modifying and enhancing armaments for Cuba. Further investigation into this ordeal will reveal the true reason behind this transaction.