An aging North Korean freighter similar to the one impounded by Panama for carrying concealed Cuban military equipment made the same voyage last year without attracting suspicion, passing through the Panama Canal and calling at the same two Cuban ports, an international maritime traffic monitor said Wednesday.
The monitor, IHS Fairplay, said that both vessels — the 390-foot Oun Chong Nyon Ho, which made the voyage last year, and the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang — normally worked much closer to North Korea, making their trans-Pacific trips to Cuba even more unusual.
“They don’t normally make these ocean passages,” Richard Hurley, a maritime data specialist at IHS Fairplay, said in an interview from the group’s London offices. “It’s intriguing to see two fairly small ships making the same pattern.”
He said a new review of IHS Fairplay tracking data showed that the two freighters were among just five North Korean vessels that have traversed the Panama Canal since 2010, underscoring the rarity of North Korean shipping in the area.
The revelation of what Hurley called a “mirror image” voyage in 2012 by the Oun Chong Nyon Ho added a new twist to the intrigue surrounding the impounded ship, which has been docked at the port of Manzanillo, Panama, since Sunday. Its captain and crew were detained at a naval base after they violently resisted a boarding party of Panamanian marines acting on a tip that the ship was carrying contraband.
The marines discovered a load of Russian-built military equipment owned by Cuba, including antiquated Soviet-era radar gear, hidden among more than 200,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar. After two days of silence, Cuba acknowledged the cargo Tuesday night, describing it as “obsolete defensive weapons” sent to North Korea to be refurbished.
Angry Panamanian officials have protested the attempt to ship the clandestine cargo through the canal as a violation of UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, which has yet to comment publicly on the entire episode. The shipment also threatens to derail recent efforts by the Cuban government to ease its prolonged estrangement from the United States, where some lawmakers are already calling for retribution.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that he was aware of the impounded ship’s reported cargo, but that it was the responsibility of the Security Council’s sanctions committee to determine violations.