Oh, You Pretty Chong Chon Gang, We Love You

Just to revisit an old news item, whatever happened to that North Korean-bound ship full of vintage warplanes buried in sugar? You know, the one that left Cuba and got pulled over in Panama? Funny story, that…

So it seems there was this 450′-long, 36-year-old freighter, the Chong Chon Gang (I assume at least two US punk bands have adopted this name since this summer). It departed Russia in April 2013, sailed for two months and passed through the Panama Canal in June, at which point it announced Cuba as its destination. This was notable if only because the Chong Chon Gang (I love saying this name) hasn’t bothered with the Caribbean for several years1, at least. I wouldn’t notice that, but I’m not running maritime customs, either.

Then apparently it disappeared.

It left for Cuba and, by one report, “dropped off the radar.”2 It may have been able to do this, in part, by shutting off its transponder. This device is usually kept on as a safety measure to help ships in trouble be found by the Coast Guard or other maritime services, yet some ships disable it when carrying something they don’t want to be caught with or when navigating paths they don’t want to be found on. On the other hand, a percentage of US spy satellites are charged with tracking North Korean vessels, and so dispatched specifically with the mission to track weapons transfers. So how did the Chong Chon Gang, an antique rust-bucket at best, make it to Cuba, pick up its cargo, and head back to Panama completely undetected?

At any rate, it did reappear on July 11 as it approached the canal and, based on a tip, was apprehended in port the next day. Panama tried to spin this as the rapid and efficient exchange of intelligence between cooperating agencies3, but no. It was just a tip they decided to act on.

What happened next would best be represented by fast-motion black-and-white film with a frenetic piano score: when the Korean crew saw Panamanian police approaching, they allegedly assaulted their own ship (unsure what this was purported to achieve). When the police attempted to board the ship, they discovered the crew had armed themselves with pointy sticks. When the Panamanian authority tried to lower a crane to unload the cargo, the North Koreans kept pushing it out of the way and eventually disabled it, to their credit. The captain made, perhaps, the greatest show of all: after unsuccessfully faking a heart attack, he attempted to slit his own throat (with a pointy stick?) but was apprehended in stable condition. One reasonable theory to justify these theatrics was that every single man aboard knew their actions would be reported to North Korea, and anything less than a vigorous resistance to Panamanian authority could generate repercussions against their own family back home. So let us be generous when interpreting this crazy-assed behavior.

And sure enough, underneath 220,000 sacks of sugar was 240 metric tons of archaic military equipment:

  • Two MiG-21 BIs and 15 motors for same
  • Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems
  • A Soviet-era missile radar system
  • Nine missiles “in parts and spares”
  • And other sundry supplies and items4

…all new in 1957.1 Not much of a threat to anyone now, even if North Korea had received it and repaired it into working order, if possible.

When asked how the hell a North Korean freighter ended up with this contraband, Cuba stated quite frankly it was shipping the machinery to be repaired in North Korea, Havana’s ally. That’s what’s done, apparently: North Korea insisted it had a legitimate contract to repair the weapons and return them to Cuba, and the sugar may have been part of its payment for this task. See, North Korea specializes in this vintage technology because that was the era in which they threw up their walls to block out the rest of the world, and other nations have used them for the same service. It just happens that some of those nations, like Syria and Iran, are sweating it out under the watchful western eye on their own merit and therefore not providing regular business to cash-strapped DPRK. Panama’s position, reasonably, was that the unregistered weapons violated a United Nations weapons embargo on North Korea6, not to mention the common sense stricture against allowing just any ol’ ship to breeze on through the canal carrying whatever the hell they want without notification.

The crew was promptly detained, and between you and me, the duration of their incarceration probably represented the best those long-suffering men had eaten in a long time, maybe their entire lives. In October Panama announced it would release 33 of the 35 crew members back to North Korea.5

And at the end of November, Panamanian prosecutors said they had returned 32 (???) of them to their home nation, but soon recanted this statement and admitted it hadn’t actually released anyone.6 The ship is otherwise free to go except for that it cannot move until North Korea pays a $1M fine as a penalty for smuggling unregistered (if ancient) ordnance through the canal.

Predictably, DPRK has zero no interest in paying. It only undertook this sketchy deal because it was so strapped for resources and money. Seven delegates from North Korea even refused the offer of a $600K down payment to set the crew free.7 Panama offered to sell the sugar, estimated at $3M, by way of covering this expense and doing the hard work for North Korea, but the DPRK says it wants the sugar.

And that’s where we are today.


  1. Panama Seizes Korean Ship, and Sugar-Coated Arms Parts. Rick Gladstone and David E. Sanger, New York Times; July 13, 2013.
  2. Cuba Admits To Sending Weapons To North Korea. Diane Sweet, Crooks and Liars; July 18, 2013.
  3. Panama’s government bolsters efforts against the drug trade. Alma Solis, Inside Costa Rica; December 23, 2013.
  4. Full Disclosure: Contents of North Korean Smuggling Ship Revealed. Hugh Griffiths and Roope Siirtola, 38 North; August 27, 2013.
  5. Panama Says It Will Release Most From Ship to North Korea. Rick Gladstone, New York Times; October 21, 2013.
  6. Panama prosecutor reverses story: None of crew of seized on North Korean ship has been freed. Juan Zamorano, The Republic; November 27, 2013.
  7. North Korean Ship Chong Chon Gang, Stopped For Carrying Undeclared Warfare, Still Stalled In Panama; Pyongyang Refuses To Pay Fine. Patricia Rey Mallén, International Business Times; November 22, 2013.


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