Panamanian authorities thought there might be drugs aboard the North Korean ship, which had sailed from Cuba. Instead, inspectors at the Panama Canal found ballistic missile parts hidden inside.
"There was great resistance on the part of the captain and crew members," said Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, who added the captain actually tried to commit suicide.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen, a Republican of Miami, says this episode shows the United States should re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
"So here you have two rogue regimes, in cahoots with one another, trying to get around sanctions, and thinking they can hide these missile parts in sugar containers," Ros-Lehtinen said in an impromptu news conference.
Ros-Lehtinen thinks the missile parts were from North Korea, destined for an unknown country, and says the North Koreans were using Cuban sugar to hide the shipment.
NBC News is reporting the missile parts are vintage Soviet-made components, left over from the Cold War, that the North Koreans were going to modernize.
Cuba analyst Andy Gomez has a different theory.
"Is Cuba serving as the middleman for this exchange? Highly possible. Where's it coming from? The first source we would have to think about would be venezuela," Gomez said.
Gomez, formerly a University of Miami professor, has studied Cuba's regime for years, and thinks the Cubans may have set this up as a distraction from something else.
"Why is this ship that has never been in the western hemisphere all of a sudden appear coming out of Cuba, going through the Panama Canal?" Gomez point out, saying the Cubans had to know a North Korean vessel would be tightly inspected, an obvious target for the west to look at.
"The Cubans are not that dumb," gomez said. "To get caught red-handed like this, involved with North Korea,there's something here more to it and we'll probably find out over the next couple of weeks."
Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen says in light of the discovery of the missile parts on the North Korean ship, the Obama administration should cancel talks with the Cuban government scheduled for next week. Those talks were to focus on mail delivery and migration between Cuba and the U.S.