Panama: Jets Found on N. Korean Ship in Good Working Order

A man works in a container with the MiG-21 fighter planes found on a North Korean cargo ship near the Panama Canal in July. Panamanian officials said the jets are in good working order, despite Cuban officials' claim that they sent them to North Korea for repairs (RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images).
A man works in a container with the MiG-21 fighter planes found on a North Korean cargo ship near the Panama Canal in July. Panamanian officials said the jets are in good working order, despite Cuban officials' claim that they sent them to North Korea for repairs (RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images).

Fighter jets discovered this past summer on a North Korean freighter near the Panama Canal are in good working order, despite Cuban officials' claim that they sent them to North Korea for repairs, the McClatchy Newspapers reported on Friday, citing Panamanian officials.

The two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter planes had "fuel still inside their tanks," Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez said in an interview. "They were not obsolete and in need of repair."

In July, Panamanian authorities, acting on a tip, interdicted the North Korean cargo ship, the Chong Chon Gang, as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal. The ensuing search of the freighter’s hold turned up 25 containers of undeclared weapons -- including anti-aircraft missile systems, broken-down missiles, anti-tank guns, rocket-propelled grenades and the two MiG jet fighters, among other assorted aging armaments.

North Korea is under U.N. Security Council sanctions that make it illegal for any nation to engage in weapons commerce -- nuclear or conventional -- with Pyongyang.

In declaring ownership of the weapons, Havana said they were being shipped to North Korea for overhauling, after which they were to be sent back to Cuba.

However, an inspection of one of the fighter planes and its accompanying maintenance documents shows it was flying just a few months earlier, according to Panamanian prosecutor Javier Caraballo.

"Brand-new" jet engines were also found accompanying the planes, according to officials.

Panamanian authorities now believe the seized fighter jets were one component of "a major deal" between Pyongyang and Havana, though they do not know its full parameters.

A Security Council special committee with oversight on North Korean sanctions still is investigating the Chong Chon Gang incident. The Panama Canal Authority has imposed a fine of up to $1 million on the freighter's owners.

Separately, in other news regarding North Korea, an unidentified military source told the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper Pyongyang is believed to be working on a new anti-ship ballistic missile that if deployed could represent a danger to both South Korean and U.S. warships.

"The North is developing a new ground-to-ship ballistic missile with a range of [124-186 miles], an improved version of the KN-02 ground-to-ground ballistic missile," the source said. "We're trying to verify the report."

October 15, 2013
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Fighter jets discovered this past summer on a North Korean freighter near the Panama Canal are in good working order, despite Cuban officials' claim that they sent them to North Korea for repairs, the McClatchy Newspapers reported on Friday, citing Panamanian officials.