Panama has seized a ship flying the North Korean flag as it prepared to enter the Panama Canal on the Atlantic side, near Manzanillo. The Panamanian authorities were looking for drugs, but instead, they found “undeclared military cargo.” Actually, they seem to have found fairly sophisticated missile parts inside containers of brown sugar. The ship had just left Cuba, and this raises a great many issues.
First of all, Cuba is not much of a military power these days. Back when the Cubans could rely on Soviet weapons and supplies, they managed to stick their fingers in a great many pies. Cuban soldiers fought throughout Latin America and Africa during the Cold War. However, the country doesn’t have much of a missile industry, nor even the industrial capacities needed to have a missile industry. So, it’s safe to say that Cuba was merely a transshipment point.
Secondly, if Cuba was a transshipment point, from whence are these parts coming? If China or Russia wanted to provide such assistance, Cuba is just about the most difficult spot to use. Both countries could simply drive the contraband across the Yalu River. Other nations with decent missile capabilities have little love for Pyongyang’s sociopath regime. Until there’s a definite link to some government that is plausible in terms of both politics and technological capacity, it is safe to say this shipment is unofficial.
Third, unofficial arms shipments are worse than official shipments. In all likelihood, this equipment found its way into private hands somehow, and Cuba was a place it could be kept until such time as an arms deal was made. Given the choice between Beijing or Moscow sending equipment officially and some private arms dealer breaking the UN sanctions, one prefers the former. Dealing with private suppliers is a great deal of work, and the situation is inherently unstable.
Panamanian President Ricardo Marinelli told the local ;press, “We’re going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside.” By that, he means doing much more than looking up the SKU on the Internet. It is probable that the US intelligence community will get into the act. They will try to determine not just what is in the sugar containers, but also how it got to Cuba, who owned it, and how North Korea paid the bill. All of that is important because North Korea remains the single greatest threat to world peace that there is. And one is unashamed to admit that this is frightening.
North Korea is going to remain a problem for years, if not decades. The trade sanctions will not bring down the regime, and were the regime to collapse, it would destabilize the entire western Pacific. That is in no one’s interests. However, the embargo does prevent the Pyongyang regime from acquiring weapons that would increase the level of threat it poses to its much saner neighbors. In the end, reform in North Korea is the least awful way forward, and that will only happen when China starts acting like the regional power that it is and forces change on the North Korean regime. Until then, the planet owes Panama a debt of gratitude.