A North Korea cargo ship held in Panama with a load of undetermined weapons systems from Cuba has scrapped with pirates, been accused of shipping drugs and in its latest exploit apparently shut off its tracking system to vanish on the high seas, maritime experts say.
The Chong Chon Gang was anchored Wednesday on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal after having been halted on suspicion of shipping illicit drugs, according to Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.
An initial search of the ship's cargo hold revealed what appeared to be an old Soviet-made radar system for surface-to-air missiles capable of striking enemy jets at high altitudes.
Panama requested help searching the rest of the ship from the United Nations, which has imposed a weapons-transport ban on North Korea over its refusal to end its nuclear tests.
North Korea has issued no comment on the meanderings of its vessel. Built in 1977, the Chong Chon Gang is registered to the state-owned Pyongyang-based Chongchongang Shipping Company and "has a long history of detentions for safety deficiencies and other undeclared reasons," Lloyd's List said.
The slow-going Chong Chon Gang, its smokestack emblazoned with the colors and emblem of the North Korean flag, has had several adventures on the high seas.
It has been detained on suspicion of trafficking drugs and ammunition, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says. It was stopped in 2010 by Ukraine authorities in the Black Sea for reasons that are unclear. It was attacked by pirates in the Arabian Sea in 2009. Two of its sailors were injured in the unsuccessful hijack attempt, according to the Lloyd's List's vessel report.
That year the ship caught the attention of maritime officials when it made a stop at the Syrian port of Tartus, home to Russia's only overseas naval base, says Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the institute. Why it was there is not known.
The Maritime Database shows the Chong Chon Gang has operated mostly in Asia with occasional trips to Kenya, United Arab Emirates, Brazil and Turkey. In previous years the ship's operator, technical manager and owner have all been listed as the North Korean state-run Chongchongang Shipping Co. Ltd, according to HIS Maritime Analyst Gary Li. It has also been to Iran, the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, according to Lloyd's List.
Its latest voyage appears to have begun in April in Russia. Lloyd's List analyst Richard Meade said the Chong Chon Gang's last recorded port call was in Vostochnyy, Russia, where it listed its destination as Havana, Cuba. Before its visit to Russia the ship spent several months visiting Chinese ports, leaving Tianjin on Jan. 25, Meade said in a report Lloyd's List provided to USA TODAY.
But the vessel's route after departing Vostochnyy on April 12 is a mystery because the ship stopped sending signals to an international tracking system that allows global maritime authorities to know the location of ocean-going vessels.
Large vessels are required by international law to transmit their location at all times to the satellite-based international Automatic Identification System. The ship's disappearance from AIS indicates that the crew may have switched off the shipboard device that automatically transmits the ship's location, said Lloyd's List Intelligence, which tracks the maritime industry.
On May 31 the ship reappeared on AIS tracking when it arrived about 7,500 nautical miles away in Balboa, Panama, Meade stated. The vessel was granted passage through the canal June 1, again with a stated destination of Havana, according to tracking data provided to USA TODAY by IHS Maritime, a security consultancy.
After that it disappeared again from AIS. It reappeared in Manzanillo July 11 on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal, en route to North Korea, according to IHS Maritime.
"At this point its draft had changed, indicating that in the intervening period there has been a change of cargo," IHS said.
The irregularities of the ship's travel and "unspecified" intelligence prompted Panamanian officials to seize the ship Friday, said the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa. The paper reported that the crew had mutinied, and the captain had experienced a heart attack, then tried to commit suicide.
Vessels above 300 tons are required by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations shipping safety enforcer, to keep their AIS transmitters going at all times, but vessels turn them off for various reasons, said Frederic Urban, of Lloyd's List.
"It is illegal, but still happens," Urban said in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "There are not only criminal activities which make vessel switch off their AIS antenna, it could be fishing vessels, or other vessels, where tracking might give the competition a commercial advantage."
Griffiths said his institute told the United Nations this year that it had uncovered evidence of a flight from Cuba to North Korea that traveled via central Africa.
"Given the history of North Korea, Cuban military cooperation and now this latest seizure, we find this flight more interesting," he said. "
Contributing: The Associated Press