A rusting freighter carrying a secret cargo of weapons is the focus of a war of words.
The North Korean ship was boarded and ordered to port by Panama customs and naval officials as it sailed for the canal and home after docking in Cuba.
A search of the ship’s 10,000 tons of sugar carefully stowed in the holds revealed a far more sinister cargo.
Cuba admits loading the ship with 240 tons of weapons – including two anti-aircraft missile units, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.
The Havana government claims the weapons are obsolete and were en route to North Korea for repairs and return.
Panama, meanwhile, has referred the matter to the United Nations for advice, arguing the shipment could amount to an attempt to bust armament sanctions against North Korea.
Meanwhile the captain and 34 other crew are in custody in Panama and may face charges of gun-running and sanction-breaking.
In the end, the war of words will probably boil down to confiscation and destruction of the weapons and release of the crew and ship.
First, no doubt, security services from the US and other interested nations will go over the freighter with a fine toothed comb.
The ship went off radar after passing through the canal in June from North Korea.
Ships carry satellite transponders that transmit their locations at all times. This alerted the authorities that something suspicious may have happened when the freighter surprisingly reappeared.
Cuba and North Korea say the hullabaloo is unnecessary, arguing that the weapons date back decades and are obsolete.
Panama and the UN want to know why hide them if the cargo was so innocent.
North Korea is likely to have a tough time explaining their actions away to the West and the Pyongyang government is likely to face a humiliating public climb down before the ship is released.
The UN has imposed sanctions against North Korea as the country refuses to close a controversial nuclear weapons program.
Panama President Ricardo Martinelli is eager to please the US and UN, and issued photos of the ship’s secret weapons cargo on his Twitter account that show green containers hidden beneath tons of sugar.
He claims the cargo is ‘suspected sophisticated missile equipment’ and not the rusty, hardly working scrap that the Cubans and North Korea claim is in the hold.
And to add insult to injury, he tweeted that regardless of the state of the weapons, the ship’s captain should have notified the Panamanian authorities of what his ship was carrying.