Last week, Panamanian government authorities discovered two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets on a North Korea-bound ship trying to pass through the Panama Canal after leaving from Cuba. The ship was seized after a search discovered the jets, in addition to missile parts. The weapons were all hidden in a large shipment of — wait for it — sugar.
The findings are largely going to be considered a huge failure on part of Pyongyang in its following of tough UN sanctions on the country. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli explained that there were 27 different containers onboard the boat. President Martinelli commented that "As you can see we're doing the work and opening them one by one to make an inventory of everything." Cuba claims the shipment consists of "obsolete" weapons it was planning on sending to North Korea in order to have "refurbished and returned." Nevertheless, UN sanction officials are planning to visit Panama in order to inspect the shipment on August 5. So what does this discovery mean for North Korea? Does anyone buy the excuse Cuba has given? And has North Korea sunken so low they are importing archaic, Soviet-era weapons? The most likely scenario is that Cuba saw a wise economic move in trading these weapons to bolster North Korea's air defense system.
Consulting firm IHS Jane's explains that the likely purpose behind this exchange is "the radar equipment is being sent to North Korea to augment its existing air defense network." Seeking weapons to back up its own technology reveals just how few friends North Korea really has left. Its situation is one of urgency. With China taking steps to distance itself from its Communist neighbor, North Korea is left seeking help where it can. Current Security Minister Javier Mulino of Panama explained recently that 300 people are working to remove the bags of sugar to reveal exactly what else might be contained in the huge containers. The 35 members of the North Korean crew have been charged with the "endangerment of Panama's internal security." Alfredo Gutierrez, a former mayoral candidate for Managua, Nicaragua, warned of the implications behind this transaction: "Ask yourselves and demand explanations of why they are sending these hidden weapons. Maybe the Castros are selling off part of the arsenal." This could be the beginning of an enormous international incident throwing North Korea into even choppier waters than it is already in.