The Mysterious Chong Chon Gang

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What is suspicious about a North Korean ship carrying sugar to Cuba?

It’s true that the sugar business has been cover for espionage, drug runners and weapons smugglers for years, but a trained chimp should know that shipping sugar to Cuba (a sugar exporter) would raise flags. Apparently the North Koreans (known in some circles as the gang that can’t shoot straight) thought that their clever ruse would work. Apparently not.
(USA Today) 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 a 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.


Cong Chon Gong 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 hijacking 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 vessel’s route after departing Vostochnyy, Russia 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.
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, the Panamanian newspaper La Prensasaid. The newspaper reported that the crew had mutinied and that the captain had experienced a heart attack, then tried to commit suicide.
North Korea Responds

A spokesman for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Foreign Ministry gave the following answer to a question put by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Wednesday, 17 July, as regards the case of the DPRK trading ship Chongchongang apprehended in Panama: 

“The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of “drug investigation” and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug. Yet, they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kind of cargo aboard the ship. This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back (sic) to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract.”

Blogger input:

Why does legal cargo need to be hidden under tons of sugar?

12 thoughts on “The Mysterious Chong Chon Gang

  1. Mutiny? Heart attack followed by suicide attempt? Sugary weapons systems? Always turning off their cell phones?

    I'm sure everything is above board and fine (sarcasm).

  2. I suspect that when the inspectors boarded the Chong Chon Gang that the captain and crew came down with a 'rash'.

  3. The peace loving, Democratic People's Republic of Korea with their Secret Friendship Cargo Ship is simply doing what they've always done.

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