UN Asked to Probe North Korea Arms Shipment for Sanctions Violations

By Rachel Vandenbrink
nk-cuba-arms-july-2013.jpg Weapon parts found aboard North Korea's Chong Chon Gang at Manzanillo Harbor in Panama on July 16, 2013.

North Korea and Cuba have admitted to a controversial arms deal in possible violation of U.N. sanctions after a Pyongyang-flagged vessel carrying anti-missile systems hidden under sacks of sugar was seized in the Panama Canal.

Panama, which stopped the ship last week and found the undeclared weapons, urged U.N. inspectors on Wednesday to scrutinize the cargo amid concerns that they could breach the strict arms sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear program.

Cuba claimed the stash as its own on Tuesday, saying they were “obsolete” Soviet-era weapons, including two anti-aircraft missile systems, that were to be repaired in North Korea and returned to the island.

North Korea backed up Cuba’s statement on Wednesday, saying the arms were part of a legitimate deal and demanding the return of the ship’s crew.

"This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," Pyongyang’s official Korea Central News Agency quoted the foreign ministry as saying.

Panama has said that in the cargo of the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, it found 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.

UN asked to advise

Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said Wednesday that his government had asked the United Nations to advise on the case and that Panama aimed to hand over the ship and its cargo to U.N. representatives.

U.N. sanctions bar the transport of all weapons to and from North Korea apart from imports of small arms.

In February, the sanctions were tightened in response to North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test, strengthening the authority of states to inspect North Korean cargo in an effort to cut off routes of supply and funding to the isolated country.   

The U.N. has an eight-member panel of experts appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to monitor the sanctions.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said Wednesday that the Chong Chon Gang’s shipment appeared to have violated the arms embargo.

"Clearly the facts still need to be established.  But on the face of it, the transfer of these weapons to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime on North Korea,” he said.

'Obsolete defensive weapons'

Cuba’s foreign ministry statement said that while the ship’s main cargo was sugar, the vessel was also carrying 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons”: two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis fighter planes, and 15 MiG engines.

All of the weaponry was built in the mid-20th century and was to be brought back to Cuba after repairs in North Korea, it said.  

“The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty,” the statement said.

According to international law, Cuba—North Korea’s Cold War-era ally— would have had to get a waiver in advance from the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea if it wanted to send the weapons there for repairs, U.N. diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press.

Based on photo analysis of some of the ship’s cargo, London-based IHS Jane's Defence Weekly magazine said the vessel was carrying a fire-control radar system that guides surface-to-air missiles to their target.

'Grave violation'

The U.S. State Department has said it will discuss the arms with Cuba “soon” once it has more information.

"It's going to take some time to confirm the details of this case, but that kind of export would be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions," U.S. State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said at a press briefing.

U.S. lawmakers have condemned the shipment as in breach of U.N. treaties.  

“The shipment of weapons systems by the Cuban government to the government of North Korea is a grave violation of international treaties,” U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said in a statement.

South Korea’s foreign ministry also hailed Panama’s decision to interdict the ship, saying it hoped the Security Council would respond “expeditiously” if the shipment turns out to be in breach of U.N. resolutions.  

Panama stopped the ship for a drug search and seized the cargo after a stand-off with the North Korean crew in which the captain tried to slit his own throat, reports said.

The captain and 35 crew members are in custody and Panama’s attorney general has said they could face charges for threatening security officials.

The Chong Chon Gang left eastern Russia in April and traveled across the Pacific Ocean before entering the Panama Canal in early June, with Cuba as its stated destination.

But it disappeared from satellite tracking systems after leaving the Caribbean side of the canal, reappearing on July 11.

Experts say this may indicate that the crew switched off the system which automatically communicates details of their location.


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