Yesterday’s seizure of a shipment of arms from Cuba to North Korea turns out to have been an official shipment that Havana sanctioned. Initial reports that containers of brown sugar also contained advanced missile parts were off the mark. The shipment appears to contained 50-year-old Cold War weapons, including a pair of MiG fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Cuba claims it was all going to North Korea for refurbishment and repair. It is something of a relief to learn that this was not an independent,private arms deal, but at the same time, it raises questions about the Cuban regime.
North Korea and Cuba have been allies since Fidel Castor frog-marched Cuba into the Soviet camp during the Cold War. Even after the collapse of the Leninist regime in Moscow, the two communist countries kept up ties — the head of North Korea’s army was in Cuba earlier this month to discuss deepening the collaboration between their two armed forces. So on the face of it, one shouldn’t be too terribly surprised that some Cuban arms were headed to North Korea for maintenance.
Except that this story smells bad, and certain facts make the Cuban story seem unlikely at best. For example, why would Cuba, a member of the United Nations, violate UN sanctiona against North Korea in this way? The Russians and the Chinese could certainly undertake the work, and probably do it quicker and better. Pyongyang is desperate for hard currency, so perhaps Havana got of nice discount, but that hardly justifies breaking the sanctions for a paltry sum in savings.
Then, there is the question of the shipment itself. If this was all above board, why was it necessary to hide the weapons under 10,000 tons of brown sugar? Why was it necessary to travel by way of the Panama Canal, when the Panamanian government inspects everything that passes through its canal? And why ship it at all? Surely it would be faster and cheaper to fly the North Korean engineers to Cuba to do the work. Fixing up 50-year-old equipment requires no specialized machinery.
No, this looks like good old-fashioned smuggling. The value of the weapons is probably not very much, and their antiquity makes them more valuable to a collector than to a commander. It is difficult to believe that the North Koreans need two out-of-date MiGs to feel more secure. However, North Korea is short of money,and the only hypothesis that makes any sense here is that Cuba sold the old weapons to North Korea, and the sociopath government there is going to sell it on to other parties.= who would consider out-of-date MiGs a good investment — Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Taleban and the like spring to mind.
When the news first broke, one presumed the shipment was a private arms sale (first reports are often wrong and one must constantly seek further information), and the fact that it isn’t makes one breathe a bit easier. Cuba can be held accountable in ways that shadowy gun-runners cannot. Of course, that requires action against Havana for this violation of international law. Some serious diplomacy lies ahead, and Cuba needs to understand that North Korea is the kind of friend about whom mothers warn their children — the kind that get good kids into bad trouble.