Photographers' Blog

All aboard North Korea’s ship of weapons

July 30, 2013

Colon City, Panama

By Carlos Jasso

I received a call from a colleague late at night saying there were rumors that a shipment of missiles from Cuba had been found on a North Korean-flagged ship at the entrance of the Canal in Colon.
At that point I stopped what I was doing and started calling my contacts in the security services, colleagues and scanning Twitter to confirm the time and place where the ship had been intercepted.

I got word that the captain of the ship had tried to commit suicide when police boarded the vessel and that there were indeed arms on the ship. I left the house in less than 15 minutes and caught a ride to the port with a colleague from a local newspaper. The port is an hour and a half away from the city and it was pitch black. There was little chance to see anything, so we decided to sit it out until dawn; maybe we would get a chance to see the ship. We got ready for a long night, three photographers perched in the car with lots of gear and a family of annoying mosquitoes that kept us company throughout the night.

The first rays of light brought reporters, photographers and cameramen and we all stormed out trying to catch a glimpse of the ship. It was pretty far away but luckily it was close enough to get by with, as a start. Interest in the story was mounting, especially after Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a picture of what seemed to be a missile on board the ship. But there was no access and we kept being told “later, later.”

Finally, after waiting for endless hours, the president himself arrived at the port to inspect the ship and we were allowed to come along. When he stepped onboard he congratulated the officers in charge of the operation and started wandering around. There was too much press, too many people in general and I decided to quietly separate myself from the group as I wanted to explore a bit more on my own.

The first thing I saw were portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Jong-il and Kim il-Sung. As it turned out they were in every cabin and in every hallway. I wondered if they had been told to put up the images or was it because their love and admiration for them was so huge that that they wanted to see them everywhere and at all times.

A ping pong table was set up in a large room and it looked like somebody had just been playing. The paddles were lying on the table carelessly and an old tin had been used to stump out cigarettes. A huge painting behind the table showed a mountainous landscape with a river, a far cry from the masses of water the crew sees every day.

The personal cabins were messy and the smell was unbearable, it smelled like old socks, gutted fish and rotten food but there were potted plants in almost all the cabins, those were at least well-kept and full of life.

Even President Martinelli made a comment on how dirty and smelly the ship was. There was a big contrast between the meeting rooms and the crew cabins. The meeting rooms were tidy and furniture seemed to be from the 60s or 70s. I could imagine how the captain and his officers would sit together, chat and enjoy the luxury of a Cuban cigar. Suddenly I felt like I was in a version of the Love Boat, but a low-budget Asian version. It was strange, like peeking into other people’s lives and getting to know them a bit through the housing and objects they’d left behind.

When I walked back out on the deck I saw a soldier guarding a door. As I got closer I saw a handcuffed person sitting behind him in a passageway. When I tried to take a picture, the soldier motioned and tried to cover the lens with his hand. I moved away. I didn’t want to push my luck and run the risk of being kicked off the ship, after all we hadn’t seen yet the supposed arms.
Finally we were told to descend two at a time, one cameraman and one photographer, into the cargo room. Before going down, we had to wait for a while next to the sacks of Cuban sugar and a swarm of very aggressive bees. The bees seemed to be seriously worried about their sugar ration and not at all about hidden arms.

When it was our turn to go down, I took advantage of the cameraman’s light and shot all the pictures I could when suddenly the cameraman jumped on top of the missile. I almost freaked out. There we were, in this very small storage compartment and the guy was sitting atop the missile like he was riding a bike. I yelled at him “Hey man, what are you doing? We have no idea if this is active, if it’s a missile after all or just a whole bunch of worthless metal but when in doubt, I’d rather stay clear and definitely won’t jump on it.”

I’m no weapons expert, but being so close to something that could have the power of causing massive destruction, killing and injuring many people in just a brief moment, is quite impressive. In the meantime, the crew of the “Chong Chon Gang” was kept out of our sight on an old military base formerly used by the Americans. It’s in the midst of the lush tropical jungle, a Caribbean paradise which I hope they are able to enjoy at least a little bit.

This could all take a little longer to resolve as they keep finding container after container hidden in the storage rooms, parts of two MiG-21 fighter jets, missile radar systems, cables and electrical equipment – obsolete and broken – and to be repaired in North Korea as the Cuban government has stated. As everything gets its humorous twist after a while, journalists have now re-christened the ship as “The Korean ship of the Ganga-style” (Ganga means bargain in Spanish).

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