Panamanian authorities flagged an aging North Korean freighter that was posing as a ship transporting raw sugar from Cuba.
The 36-year-old ship had rarely come into the Western Hemisphere, and once on board, inspectors discovered a hidden compartment under the sugar. In it were missile components that might violate sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations.
The crew was taken into custody when they refused to follow the Panamanian authorities' orders, and the captain had to be stopped from trying to kill himself.
Panama's president announced the impounding of the ship on Twitter and posted a photo of the missile system components.
Officials said the tip to search the vessel came from Panamanian intelligence but declined to say whether other countries helped:
The president said the ship would undergo a thorough inspection to look for any more contraband. "We're going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside," he said. "You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal."