Why did the North Korean smuggler try to slit his own throat?

A North Korean ship was intercepted last week attempting to traverse the Panama canal. The ship was supposed to be carrying sugar, but acting on a drug-trafficking tip, Panamanian authorities were shocked to discover an even more-unexpected cargo:

Underneath all that sugar, it turned out, were parts for what appeared to be elements of an antiquated Soviet-era missile radar system that was headed, evidently, to North Korea — a country that usually exports missile technology around the world, rather than bringing it in.

Late Tuesday night, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying the cargo stashed in the vessel, the Chong Chon Gang, consisted of “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons” bound for North Korea, where it was to be repaired and then sent back to Cuba.

How obsolete?

“We’re talking old,” one official briefed on the episode said. “When this stuff was new, Castro was plotting revolutions.”

The Cuban Ministry did not seem to be offended, describing the equipment to be repaired as “two antiaircraft missile complexes, Volga and Pechora; nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century.”

I guess a half century of embargoes and the loss of Soviet allies can really dry up that weapons pipeline.

When inspectors boarded the vessel looking for drugs, they became suspicious after the situation quickly escalated to a “violent standoff between Panamanian marines and 35 North Korean crew members, armed largely with sticks*, who were subdued and arrested while their captain, claiming he was having a heart attack, tried to commit suicide.” Specifically, according to Newser, he tried to slit his throat with a knife.

*To be fair, when you’re using stone age weaponry, Korean War-era armament can look rather attractive.

Why the seemingly drastic reaction? Yes, the captain must go down with his ship, but last week was hardly the first time this particular North Korean vessel has been intercepted:

The Chong Chon Gang, a 36-year-old freighter, has its own peculiar history, and this was not the first time the vessel had encountered run-ins with maritime authorities. It was stopped in 2010 for carrying narcotics and ammunition, Mr. Griffiths said. He also said it had been attacked by Somali pirates.

So what exactly was the captain afraid of? As it turns out, he had good reason to fear the potential repercussions of his capture:

José Raúl Mulino, Panama’s minister of security, said in a telephone interview that the entire crew had been detained at a naval base after committing what he called an act of “rebellion and sabotage” in trying to resist the boarding of the vessel. It was unclear whether they would face criminal prosecution or be sent back to North Korea.

Like countless others who have departed Cuba by sea, if I were in the captain’s shoes, I would make but one request: Don’t send me back.


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