Updated 2:15 a.m. ET July 17, 2013
North Korea seems to have been caught red-handed, trying to smuggle parts of a weapons system from Cuba through the Panama Canal. Panama's military seized the cargo Monday.
U.S. intelligence had been tracking the ship since last week, when it left Cuba to transit the Panama Canal bound for North Korea. When canal authorities stopped and searched the vessel, they found hidden beneath a cargo of sugar what Panama's president called "sophisticated missile equipment." That would be a clear cut violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
According to Panama's president, the ship's captain was so upset at being caught that he tried to commit suicide.
Sources said the equipment was part of a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system known as the SA-2, which was first fielded in the late 1950s.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was Fidel Castro's chief military backer in his standoff with the United States. Sources say the Soviets provided the SA-2 to Cuba years ago, and that Cuba was now transferring it to North Korea.
Just last month, one of North Korea's top generals paid a state visit to Cuba, which is one of the north's few remaining allies in the world. Whether the aborted shipment of missiles disguised as sugar was a result of that visit is unclear.
Because it is such an old missile system, it was probably no longer in good condition and Cuba was sending it to North Korea to be overhauled.
Cuba issued a statement late Monday saying the shipment consisted of "obsolete" defensive weapons, needed to maintain its defense and sovereignty.