Cuba has claimed ownership of a shipment of decades-old weaponry discovered by Panamanian authorities on a North Korean vessel earlier this week, Reuters reported.
The North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang was boarded by Panamanian authorities who discovered underneath many mounds of sugar the contraband arms. The Cuban Foreign Ministry in a statement said the Soviet-era armaments were being transported to North Korea for fixing and included nine broken apart rockets, two air-defense missile batteries, as well as fighter jet parts.
Havana asserted the arms were needed to "maintain our defensive capacity to preserve national sovereignty." The Caribbean country also affirmed "its commitment to peace including nuclear disarmament and international law."
North Korea is under heightened U.N. Security Council sanctions as a result of its continued ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development. Those sanctions prohibit Pyongyang from engaging in any international weapons dealings.
"Shipments of arms or related materiel to and from (North) Korea would violate Security Council resolutions, three of them as a matter of fact," said interim U.N. Security Council President and U.S. envoy Rosemary DiCarlo.
Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said the Chong Chon Gang was first intercepted by Panamanian authorities last Wednesday. The search of the ship has thus far turned up two weapons-filled containers and the investigation could take an entire week to complete, he said.
The U.S. State Department applauded Panama for its actions in seizing and searching the North Korean vessel. Panama is a member of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational effort that seeks through interdictions to halt the international trafficking of weapons of mass destruction.
The North Korean ship's 35-member crew including its captain, who attempted suicide, has been taken into custody for their efforts to physically prevent the Panamanian boarding operation. The crew is being interrogated at Fort Sherman near the Panama Canal.
Panama City has requested that U.S. specialists assist in the search of the ship and inspection of the weapons, an unidentified security official said.
An anonymous U.S. official said it was probable that Havana was sending the sugar to North Korea as payment for retrofits to the accompanying weapons.
While the apparent weapons deal may be limited in scope, it could be indicative of just how desperate for trade Pyongyang has become, said Hugh Griffiths, who focuses on weapons smuggling at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "What I can say for sure is that looking at illicit North Korea trade, their ships in particular, these guys are stumped for money, they are incredibly poor," he told the New York Times.
"Business deals that might look silly to us don't look ridiculous to them," Griffiths said.
Photographs published by the Panamanian government of the seized arms include an image of a radar component for a surface-to-air SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, USA Today reported.
That particular SA-2 missile has been the focus of decades of efforts by U.S. weapons specialists intent on neutralizing its threat, according to Globalsecurity.org Director John Pike.
"I think the United States and South Korea and Japan have reasonable confidence they can jam it and blow up its radars and it can be rendered ineffective, but it could not be ignored," Pike said in an interview.
This week's trafficking discovery represents the first authenticated weapons smuggling effort from Cuba to the East Asian country in about two decades, according to onetime Pentagon Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Bruce Bechtol. While Pyongyang presently has an arsenal of SA-2 missiles, "you can always use more," he said.