North Korea-Panama-Cuba: Panamanian authorities, supposedly searching for drugs, stopped the North Korean-flagged merchant ship Chong Chon Gang on its way from Cuba to the Panama Canal. They found obsolete surface-to-air missile parts and radars from the Vietnam War era under the cargo of 10,000 tons of sugar. The Panamanians have seized the ship for carrying undeclared military cargo and taken the crew into custody.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry confirmed that it shipped the equipment to North Korea. It said the ship was carrying 240 tons of obsolete defensive weapons - two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG 21-Bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.
The Cuban statement said they were all made in the mid-20th Century and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba. "The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty."
Comment: The US had to have been the source of the tip-off to search for "drugs." The search was a set-up, but the open Cuban admission makes the cloak-and-dagger dimension look misguided.
Ironically, this appears to be a case of reverse proliferation, at least at this stage of the transaction. North Korea has the mechanical and technical capabilities to repair and keep operational 50-year old weapons systems. Their war museums have functioning captured US equipment from the Korean War stored in the basement in mint condition. The Cuban statement appears calculated to make this a Cuban defense issue and not subject to UN oversight. Cuba can choose to send its equipment needing repair to any competent state, so the argument goes.
North Korea and Cuba have had a longstanding and somewhat mysterious relationship since the time of Kim Il-sung. Almost every North Korean Chief of the General Staff visits Cuba. Rumors of North Korean combat forces deployed on Cuba have punctuated reporting on the relationship for decades, but have proven unfounded.
North Korean leaders always cherished a hope that they might be able to use Cuba from which to retaliate against the US, or at least threaten retaliation. The Cubans are not known to have obliged, but they helped North Korea manipulate perceptions to that effect.
The West will argue that UN resolutions prohibit this activity, but reverse proliferation does not seem to have been considered when the resolutions were drafted.
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