SEOUL – A North Korean vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of “obsolete…defensive weapons” when it was intercepted in Panama, a statement released by Cuba’s foreign ministry said Wednesday.
Havana said that the weapons, being sent for repair in North Korea, included two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares”, two Mig-21 jets and 15 engines for those aircraft.
“The agreements Cuba has signed in these areas are based on our need to maintain our defensive capacity to protect national sovereignty,” the statement said.
“Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law.”
Although Cuba was quick to publicly respond to the interception, Havana’s statement did not acknowledge the legal issues related to sending arms to North Korea, namely that UN sanctions make it illegal to send heavy weapons in or out of the DPRK.
UN sanctions mean that neither Cuba or North Korea will be able to secure the release of the intercepted weapons which will likely be destroyed after closer analysis by investigators.
“On the face of it the loss of this equipment will be a significant blow to the Cuban armed forces,” a source familiar with the story told NK News by email.
“The size of this seizure will focus attention too on the disposal of the seized goods, on which UN guidance is sketchy.”
Containing 15 jet engines it is possible that a number of Cuban air force MiG jets could be grounded as a result, the source added.
“This is not the first time that the DPRK has been found to be modernizing elderly weapons. A few years ago the [UN] Panel of Experts reported that an African nation had contracted DPRK experts to repair military vehicles, including tanks, but had expelled them when it realized that this breached UN Security Council resolutions,” the source explained.
On Tuesday Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli said that his nation believed the intercepted weapons cargo contained “sophisticated missile equipment…that is not allowed”.
Upon interception of the vessel Martinelli also revealed that the North Korean vessel had tried to commit suicide and that the boat’s crew had rioted against inspecting officers.
“The violent reaction of the North Korean crew to the interception is not unusual; when the U.S. navy approached the MV Light in 2011 the crew of that vessel also went into a frenzy. The vessel used, the Chong Chon Gang, has been named in previous reports by the UN Panel of Experts,” a source familiar with the story added.
In July North Korea’s Kim Kyok Sik visited Cuba and met with his opposite number to sign a “2013-2016 agreement on cultural exchange between the governments of the DPRK and Cuba”.
During his visit Kim Kyok Sik also met with Raul Castro and had an “exchange about the historical ties that unite the two nations and the common will to continue strengthening them”.
Despite the high profile meeting, data from KCNA Watch shows that North Korean official state media reporting on Cuba has dwindled significantly in recent years. During recent inter-Korean tensions Fidel Castro lightly criticized North Korea for threatening nuclear war with the U.S.
The U.S. has said it strongly supports Panama’s actions over the interception of the North Korean vessel, the Chong Chon Gang.
“We stand ready to cooperate with Panama should they request our assistance,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Tuesday.
The vessel was stopped near Manzanillo on the Atlantic side of Panama’s canal last week.
Picture credit: Marine Traffic
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