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Panama Finds Possible Missile Control Vehicles in N. Korean Freighter

A naval police officer stands on Tuesday near a Russian-made jet engine taken from the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang. The ship seized in Panama earlier this month reportedly contained five vehicles that might include missile control features (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco). A naval police officer stands on Tuesday near a Russian-made jet engine taken from the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang. The ship seized in Panama earlier this month reportedly contained five vehicles that might include missile control features (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco).

Panamanian authorities have uncovered five vehicles that might feature missile control systems in the hold of the North Korean cargo ship that was interdicted earlier this month as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

The Cuban government has said the freighter Chong Chon Gang was transporting a cargo of undeclared and outdated Soviet-era weaponry, including MiG fighter planes and parts, to North Korea where they were to be overhauled and then shipped back to Cuba.

With the U.N. Security Council slated to investigate the smuggling incident, Panama has requested that U.N. specialists postpone traveling to the Central American nation until Aug. 12 as authorities are still removing all of the ship's cargo. The freight includes 100,000 tons of sugar that was apparently to be Pyongyang's payment for fixing the obsolete weapons.

Meanwhile, the general officer nominated to take over command of U.S. military personnel stationed on the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday said he favors the current schedule for handing wartime control of South Korean troops back to Seoul, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The U.S. military is slated to transfer wartime authority to the South in December 2015, but the South Korean Defense Ministry has requested the timing of the handover be reconsidered due to concerns that its armed forces are not ready.

"I think it's a good plan," Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said during his Senate confirmation hearing. "I think we should move forward with it." Still, the handover will not happen if South Korean forces are determined to have not met certain capability requirements, he suggested.

Those milestones include acquiring more intelligence and monitoring capabilities, certain weapons, and command and control technology, the Pentagon previously said.

Pyongyang's state-controlled media on Wednesday criticized a planned U.S.-South Korea armed forces exercise scheduled for next month, saying "if it takes place, conditions in the region will become unpredictable and escalate to the brink of war," Yonhap reported.

North Korea routinely objects to the joint exercises staged by the two allies. Scaparrotti, however, said the drills have great utility.

"They're essential in terms of the integration that we're trying to attain and the improvement in both our forces and the Republic of Korea forces," he was quoted in a Defense Department press release as saying.

Pyongyang this spring responded to one such joint exercise by dramatically threatening to launch nuclear-armed missiles at South Korea and the United States. The North is understood to have been particularly incensed by the involvement of U.S. heavy bombers in the drill. The U.S. military has defended the participation of the nuclear-capable aircraft, arguing they actually reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

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