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Cuba acknowledged Tuesday night that it is the owner of the Soviet-era weapons confiscated by Panamanian officials on a ship flying a North Korean flag, the discovery of which has raised concern over a potential bilateral arms trade.
The ship Chong Chon Gang’s cargo consisted of about 240 tons of what Cuba called “obsolete defensive weapons” that it said were being sent to North Korea for repair, according to The Associated Press. The arms, including missiles, were found buried under about 200,000 sacks of Cuban sugar, reports the Financial Times.
Current United Nations sanctions against North Korea prohibit providing the country with weapons, and the shipment would violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions, according to US State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell. The nation was slapped with increased sanctions earlier this year after a missile launch and nuclear test. Cuba is listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terror, but North Korea was taken off the list in 2008.
According to the London-based defense analysis organization IHS Janes, the undeclared weapons have two potential outlooks:
The system could either be being sent to North Korea for an upgrade before returning to Cuba, perhaps in a barter exchange for sugar. Alternatively, it is possible that it is being sent to North Korea to augment its air defence capabilities.
According to IHS and its analysis of open source geographical location data, the ship passed through the Panama Canal destined for Cuba on June 1, then disappeared from the tracking system for 45 days. The BBC notes, “Experts say this may indicate that the crew switched off the system that automatically communicates details of their location.”
Panamanian officials tried to communicate with the vessel, suspecting it was carrying illegal goods initially thought to be drugs.
The crew did not respond, so the ship was boarded and the weaponry was uncovered.
The US has praised Panama’s actions and said it was “aware of the suspected shipment and believed the Panamanian officials were going to stop it,” a US official said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The head of North Korea’s armed forces met with President Raul Castro in Cuba last month, and discussed "the historical ties that unite the two nations and the common will to continue strengthening them," according to Cuban state media, the BBC reports.
Bruce Bechtol, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, told USA Today that this was the “first confirmed shipment of weaponry from Cuba to North Korea since the end of the Cold War.”
Some observers say the seizure could impact slowly warming US-Cuban relations. Last month the cold war enemies discussed resuming direct mail services, which have been suspended since 1963, and migration talks were slated to begin today in Washington, according to an Associated Press story published last month.
North Korea has exported weapons on multiple occasions, according to CNN, shipping missiles, weapons technology, and other arms bound for countries including Syria and Myanmar.
Anya Landau French, editor of The Havana Note, a blog on US-Cuba relations, says "we still have more questions than answers" when it comes to understanding Cuba's motivations.
The news that a North Korean freighter allegedly stuffed with “sophisticated missile equipment” has been intercepted crossing the Panama Canal from Cuba must have many people talking, scratching their heads, and perhaps even flashing back to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Is history repeating itself? Or is this just a bizarre (badly-executed?) example of Cuba’s knack for extending the life of hold-overs from a bygone era? Are these the military equivalent of Cuba’s famous maquinas, the mid-century American classic cars seemingly impossibly rumbling through the streets of Cuban cities more than half a century later, not out of novelty but necessity?
A statement by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations was published in the Communist-state-sponsored newspaper Granma yesterday declaring its support for peace and disarmament, noting the weapons on board (two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 Bis fighter planes, and 15 related engines, according to the paper) were “to be repaired and returned” to Cuba.
The statement explained that the repairs were “supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty.”