IHS has identified the equipment shown in a picture taken onboard a North Korean-flagged vessel travelling from Cuba to North Korea as a fire control radar for a surface-to-air missile system.
IHS Global Insight perspective
Authorities in Panama have investigated the cargo of a North Korean-flagged vessel, the Chong Chon Gang, which appears to have been travelling from Cuba back to North Korea, it was reported today.
The authorities in Panama have stated that the vessel was carrying undeclared "missile equipment". IHS has identified the equipment shown in the images so far released as an RSN-75 'Fan Song' fire control radar.
The system could either be being sent to North Korea for an upgrade before returning to Cuba, perhaps in a barter exchange for sugar. Alternatively, it is possible that it is being sent to North Korea to augment its air defence capabilities.
The vessel Chong Chon Gang, on which the equipment was found.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli today posted a photo on the social networking website site Twitter that appears to depict a piece of equipment inside a cargo container or the hull of a ship. Martinelli stated the image showed "sophisticated missile equipment" and "undeclared weapons of war" that had been found on a vessel planning to pass through the Panama Canal. IHS has identified the equipment shown in the pictures as the RSN-75 'Fan Song' fire control radar.
The AFP news agency has reported that the vessel in question was the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean-flagged vessel. Open source Global Information System (GIS) data suggests it has been at Manzanillo, Panama, for at least two days; AFP reported today that the vessel was inspected on 12 July. GIS data obtained by IHS reveals that the Chong Chon Gang arrived at the southern end of the Panama Canal on 31 May. It passed through the Canal on 1 June, with a stated destination of Havana, Cuba. After that, it disappeared from the GIS for 45 days before reappearing in Manzanillo on 11 July, at which point its draft had changed, indicating that in the intervening period there was a change of cargo.
According to the statement from the Panamanian authorities, the vessel was approaching the Panama Canal from the Atlantic side when it was brought into Manzanillo port for inspection. Martinelli has stated that the vessel was searched because the authorities had received a tip that it was carrying drugs. The Panama authorities stated that the vessel was en route from Cuba: the weapons equipment was discovered in containers of brown sugar, a natural cargo for Cuba to be exporting. Panama's minister of security, José Raúl Mulino, told Radio Panama that the vessel "aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew from Friday afternoon". According to the authorities, when the inspection took place the crew rioted and the captain of the vessel tried to commit suicide (local media reports stated he may also have had a heart attack). North Korean agents have committed suicide rather than face interrogation in the past.
Under UN sanctions, North Korea is banned from importing weapons larger than small-arms. However, Cuba is not part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and is deemed by the United States to be a state sponsor of terrorism, along with North Korea. Cuba is a long-standing ally of North Korea and the two countries share ideological ties based on their history of Communism and opposition to the US. In July, Kim Kyok Sik, Chief of Staff of the Korean's People's Army, visited Cuba and met Cuban president Raúl Castro to discuss the state of relations between both countries and how to improve military ties.
It is unclear whether importing radar equipment alone would be a violation of the UN sanctions regime against North Korea. However, the authorities have yet to reveal whether any other equipment was also being transported, and it is possible the cargo includes equipment conclusively within the remit of the sanctions regime. In addition, the fact that the vessel did not declare the cargo – even if it is not in violation of the UN sanctions regime – may be grounds for Panama to seize the equipment.
Outlook and implications
The stated explanation for inspecting the vessel, that it was carrying drugs, is interesting in itself. The North Korean state is believed to be involved in the production and trafficking of drugs as a source of foreign currency. However, if this was the case it appears unusual that the vessel would still be carrying the illicit cargo on what appeared to be its return journey. The possibility that the vessel was intercepted because it was believed by US intelligence to be carrying weapons cannot be ruled out at this stage. The US co-operates closely with Panamanian authorities in terms of counter-narcotics operations, making a similar counter-proliferation operation a possibility.
Notwithstanding the technicalities of the UN sanctions regime, the manner in which the cargo was concealed and the reported reaction of the crew strongly suggests this was a covert shipment of equipment. Further analysis will depend on the release of a more detailed inventory of the shipment by the Panamanian authorities. One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade. In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services. This scenario is supported by the fact that North Korea's air defence network is arguably one of the densest in the world; however, it is also based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars. In particular, its high altitude SA-2/3/5 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are ineffective in a modern electronic warfare environment. This raises the second scenario: that the radar equipment is being sent to North Korea to augment its existing air defence network.