Fighter jets among other forbidden cargo
North Korea on Wednesday repeated Cuba’s assertion that the antiquated weapons systems found on a cargo ship in Panama were headed to the Asian county for repair. But while the explanation is potentially credible, it leaves troubling questions unresolved, international arms experts say.
Acting on intelligence it hasn’t publicly described, Panama seized the rusting, 34-year-old North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang on July 11 as it headed toward the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific and its final destination of North Korea.
Hidden under about 240,000 white sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar, Panamanian officials found shipping containers with parts of a radar system for a surface-to-air missile defense system, an apparent violation of U.N. sanctions that bar North Korea from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry commented on the seizure for the first time Wednesday, saying: “This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which (North Korea) is to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract.”
Thirty-five North Korean nationals were arrested after resisting police efforts to intercept the ship in Panamanian waters, according to the Central American country’s government.
Nearly 24 hours after Panama announced the find, and said it would continue searching the ship for more contraband, Cuba acknowledged late Tuesday that the ship’s cargo included 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons”: two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 Bis and 15 engines for those airplanes. The equipment was meant to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba, the Cuban government said.
North Korea has a robust capability to repair and upgrade Soviet-era military equipment, and the economically struggling, isolated nation has a track record of trading technical help for commodities such as sugar, experts said.
At the same time, North Korea is known to be seeking to evade sanctions and get spare parts for its own weapons systems, particularly Mig jet fighters. That raises the possibility that in lieu of cash, Cuba was paying for the repairs with a mix of sugar and jet equipment, experts said.
“We think it is credible that they could be sending some of these systems for repair and upgrade work,” said Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Intelligence. “But equally there is stuff in that shipment that could be used in North Korea and was not going back.”
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said Wednesday that “any weapons transfers, for whatever reason, to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime and therefore there are questions to be answered.”
“If it is confirmed that the vessel was carrying arms and or related material and the shipment was part of a purchase or sale to or from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, then that would indeed be a breach of the sanctions regime relating to that country,” said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky. “But … it’s up to the sanctions committee of the Security Council to pronounce itself on that matter.”
U.N. diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said that if Cuba wanted to send the weapons for repairs and have them returned, they would need to get a waiver in advance from the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea.
In 2010, the South African navy intercepted a shipment of upgraded tank engines that were being transported from North Korea to Congo-Brazzaville, said Hugh Griffiths, arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“The North Koreans have a track record of actually doing this,” he said. “Upgrading, servicing and repairing, that’s what the North Koreans do.”
He said the deals are part of a barter trade, where North Korea upgrades military equipment in return for commodities, like Cuban sugar or, in another documented example, Burmese rice.
Soviet-built air-defense missiles, radar systems and MiG-21 fighter jets are complex enough to periodically require a factory repair in addition to regular maintenance.
North Korea has developed arms industries producing missiles and other weapons derived from old Soviet designs and has found customers in countries that can’t afford more expensive modern arms.