July 17, 2013

NKorea arms seizure could hurt US-Cuba detente

Experts said Cuba's participation in the clandestine arms network was a puzzling move that promised little military payoff considering the risks.

The Associated Press MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN,Associated Press
PETER ORSI,Associated Press

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Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container of a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, on Tuesday.

The Associated Press

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North Korea's military delegation members led by chief of the General Staff of the people's army, Kim Kyok Sik, center, pose for photos before leaving for Cuba at the Pyongyang Airport on June 26. A North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is under a United Nations arms embargo, Panamanian officials said Tuesday.

The Associated Press

High-ranking Cubans were in Washington on Wednesday for migration talks that are supposed to be held every six months but have been on ice since January 2011, as the nations remain at odds on issues like Cuba's imprisonment of U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross.

"I don't think you can sugarcoat this," said Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "You have a suspicious cargo of weapons going to a heavily sanctioned state, and this is bad for U.S.-Cuba relations. The timing, the same week as the restart of long postponed migration talks, couldn't be worse."

In the past those discussions have provided a rare opportunity to discuss other issues informally in one of the few open channels of dialogue between the countries.

U.S. and Cuban representatives last month also sat down for talks on resuming direct mail service. Earlier this year, a U.S. judge allowed a convicted Cuban intelligence agent to return to the island rather than complete his parole in the United States. And there have been whispers that Washington could remove Cuba from its annual list of state sponsors of terrorism.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, urged a suspension of the migration talks.

"At a minimum this development will decrease the chances of any change in U.S. policy," Piccone said. "Or at least postpone changes that have been discussed quietly and publicly for some time in Washington."

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday that Washington had told Cuban officials that it would discuss the seized ship with them soon, but that it would not be a focus of the one-day migration talks.

Panamanian officials said Wednesday that the ship's crew was the subject of a criminal investigation that could lead to charges, adding that two North Korean diplomats based in Havana had been issued visas to travel to Panama to talk with authorities about the case. Panamanian authorities said it might take a week to search the ship, since so far they have only examined two of its five container sections.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that Panama should release the crew because no drugs or illegal cargo were aboard, reiterating Cuba's explanation that, "this cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract."

Experts said the equipment found aboard the North Korean vessel does not pose a military threat to the United States or its allies.

Like other aspects of Cuba's economy and infrastructure since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island's armed forces rely greatly on aging technology that requires frequent maintenance and parts that are difficult to obtain.

North Korea has a robust capability to repair and upgrade such Soviet-era military equipment, and a track record of doing that in exchange for commodities such as sugar. 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 is also 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 not be going back."

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