North Korea missiles: Are North Korea and Cuba boosting ties?

North Korea missiles mystery: A boat headed to the North was seized in Panama this week with Cuban missiles on board.

Arnulfo Franco/AP
The North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang, yellow, sits docked at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, early Tuesday, July 16. Panama's president said the country has seized the ship, carrying what appeared to be ballistic missiles and other arms that had set sail from Cuba.

Cuba announced Wednesday that a ship seized in Panama was carrying "obsolete" Cuban missiles that were on their way for repair in North Korea, a sign that the two cold war era allies could be taking tangible steps toward boosting bilateral relations.

Officials in Panama reported that the ship, which was flying under a North Korean flag, was carrying 529,000 pounds of missile parts hidden among bags of brown sugar. The ship’s captain reportedly attempted suicide and the 35-member crew violently resisted Panamanian police as they boarded the ship in Colon City, Panama on Tuesday. Panamanian authorities detained the crew and have asked that United Nations investigators inspect the ship.

As two avowedly socialist regimes, North Korea and Cuba have a history of cooperation. Though Cuba is now making moves toward introducing market mechanisms to its economy and coming out of isolation somewhat, North Korea has made no such reforms. The North Korean leadership does appear, however, interested in further developing partnerships that can reduce its reliance on China. Analysts say increasing cooperation with Cuba could be part of the Kim Jong-un regime’s strategy of enhancing partnerships with other countries.

“Because of international sanctions, it’s hard for North Korea to develop new partnerships, so they’re more likely to boost ties with countries they’ve been friendly with in the past,” says Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-hyun.

Officials from the two countries expressed intentions to increase cooperation during a visit in late June by Kim Kyok-sik, a high-ranking North Korean military official. 

Cuba and North Korea established diplomatic ties in 1960, but Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov told the BBC that economic exchange between them is “negligible.”

In May, retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro published a column in the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper Granma that stated that North Korea and Cuba always have and always will be friends. After the December 2011 death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Cuba flew flags at half-staff and observed three official days of mourning.

The shipment of the missile parts violates UN Security Council resolution 1718, which was passed in 2006 after North Korea claimed to have conducted its first nuclear test. Among other measures meant to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, the resolution banned the import and export of all weapons, with the exception of small arms, by the North. According to the resolution, all UN member states, including Cuba, must not conduct any large weapons deals with North Korea. 

In February, the UN further tightened sanctions on North Korea in response to its third nuclear weapons test. Those sanctions also strengthened the authority of states to inspect North Korean cargo, in an effort to cut off routes of supply and funding to North Korea.

“This case could make it be a sign that North Korean ships will now be more closely inspected, which will make it harder for North Korea to get the things it needs for its weapons programs,” says Koo Bon-hak, a professor at Hallym University professor.

South Korean government officials are verifying the reports of the ship’s seizure and “closely watching” the situation, reported Yonhap News Agency.

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