Cuba Sent “Obsolete Weapons” on North Korean Ship

By Isaac Risco

The Chong Chon Gang ship. Photo: IHS Maritime
The Chong Chon Gang ship. Photo: IHS Maritime

HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban government admitted today having sent “obsolete weapons” on board the North Korean ship detained on Monday at the Panama Canal, in an incident that caused angry reactions in the Central American country, reported DPA news.

The finding also caused slight misgivings in Washington due to sanctions prohibiting arms trading with North Korea and the traditional enmity between the US and Cuba.

The shipment is of “obsolete defensive weapons” from the Cuban arsenals, said the Foreign Ministry in Havana. The “half-century” old weapons were to be repaired and returned to Cuba, noted a Foreign Ministry statement.

Panamanian authorities detained the boat sailing under the North Korean flag on suspicion that it was arrying drugs and rejected the undeclared transport of weapons across the Channel. The “Chong Chon Gang”, which sailed from Havana bound for North Korea, was officially carrying sugar.

“We started to unload sugar and found two containers that presumably contained sophisticated missile equipment,” Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli told local radio on Monday after the ship’s detention.

“You can’t send undeclared war material by the Panama Canal because the Panama Canal is a channel of peace, not war,” stressed the president. Martinelli also published photos of the material seized on his Twitter account.

The armed police operation in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo was further tarnished by the resistance of the crew. After the start of the search operation, the ship’s captain attempted suicide amid a mutiny of the sailors, according to the official report. They are now reported to be in custody.

The incident came  the day before the United States and Cuba are scheduled to resume migration talks after two years.

The Cuban government defended itself pointing to sending “obsolete weapons” for repair and the “need” to keep their “defense capability” to defend the country’s sovereignty.

Besides sugar, on the ship “were transported 240 tons of obsolete defensive armament,” confirmed the Cuban Foreign Ministry, pointing to “agreements” for the island to ensure its defense.

The shipment included “two Volga and Pechora antiaircraft missile complexes, nine rockets in parts and pieces, two Mig-21 Bis aircraft and 15 engines of this type of aircraft,” explained the Cuban government.

“All made in the middle of the last century,” he added. The models quoted are ancient weapons of Soviet manufacture. Until its demise in the early 90s, the Soviet Union was a close ally of Fidel Castro.

Likewise, Pyongyang’s communist government has close ties with Havana. The “Chong Chon Gang” was also carrying 10,000 tons of sugar, said the Foreign Ministry.

The Panamanian government, meanwhile, asked today to inspect the weapons on board the North Korean ship, retained in the port of Manzanillo, in the Caribbean province of Colon, 80 miles north of Panama City.

Panama has requested assistance from the United States and United Kingdom, local radio today quoted President Martinelli as saying. UN experts will also assist the country, explained Public Security Minister, Jose Raul Molino.

Until now there was no clear impact of the incident on the incipient rapprochement between the US and Cuba.

Although the US congratulated the Panamanian government for the seizure of military equipment, Washington was very careful when evaluating potential impacts against Havana and Pyongyang, indicating that there are still many details pending.

American conservatives demanded that the Obama administration put an “immediate” stop to the meeting with Cuba on immigration policies. This should not take place “until (Havana) gives clear and consistent answers about this incident,” said Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a leading Cuban-born opponent of any rapproachment between the two governments.

12 thoughts on “Cuba Sent “Obsolete Weapons” on North Korean Ship

  • How idiotic can these speculations get? If you removed the word Cuba from the discussion, it seems some would be talking and writing about Puerto Rico, Guam, Chad or the Philippines.

    Do I need to remind anyone, that Cuba stood up, never flinched and was ready to go down in history, standing up against the world largest nuclear arsenal in 1962, who had used these murderous weapons, not once, but twice before?

    Cuba did not have MIG-21, Radar Systems nor Rockets in 1962; it did have and continue to have, the teachings of Marti, Maceo, Mariana, Hatuey and Guarina, who thought them, that “To die for the Fatherland, is to Live”.

    Since July 26, 1953, the world have learned, that the soap opera taking place in Panama and all others before, during and after, are no starters for a country, where values, principles and balls, are worth more than Wall Street Trillions.

    Please teach those ignorant of history or suffering from Alzheimer, what makes Cuba distinct and different!

  • North Korea does a lot of that kind of work: repairing old Soviet era military equipment. They have the factories to do it, and at a fraction of the cost Russia would charge.

    Still, the whole thing still looks fishy and I’m sure there is more to this business than we currently know. No way was this shipment a once only event. They just got caught this time.

  • Griffin
    They have had prior cases of Cuban pilots defecting to the US. Not sure how possible it is to get to the US coast in a Mig-21 without the radar finding out. Asume that in a low level fly is possible to get very close given earth curvature (radar will only see line of sight) and also taking into account that a Mig-21 is a supersonic airplanes it will take very little time for them to get to the US. Granted it will be a kamikaze mission but nevertheless the end results devastating for us.
    If North Korea is able to create nuclear weapons and also almost get long range ballistic missiles then why will it purchase “obsolete” weapons from Cuba? That does not make sense to me.
    Like I said before they have expend 50 years taking care of Russian weapons in Cuba why will they need now the help of the North Koreans? I am not biting the bate.
    I still think it makes more sense the idea of refitting these weapons to use as Nuclear Weapons delivery devices.

  • A Cuban MIG-21 would not get close enough to the US mainland on such a crazy mission. US radar would pick it up and air defence systems would blast it pout of the sky.

    It comes down to money. Two possibilities remain:
    1. Cuba was selling some old weapons to North Korea, who would either use them or re-sell them to somebody else.
    2. Cuba was sending the stuff to NoKo for repairs as they would charge less than Russia.

    Indications are this isn’t the first time they did this, either.

  • This is an speculation on my part naturally but to me is what really makes sense.

    There is no reason to sent weapons to North Korea from Cuba.
    It would have made more sense to sent them to Russia for repair.
    I am very sure that Cuba have the personal with the necessary skills to repair these weapons. So what they presented as excuse is just a farce.
    Once we have taken that out of the picture we need to ask ourselves what can be the real reason. We do not have to think very hard to come up with one.
    North Korea is a rogue state with nuclear capability. They seem to lack long range missile capability therefore that lets me to conclude that we may be in the presence of a secret accord between to North Korean government where North Korea will retrofit Cuban arsenal to use nuclear weapons. Think of the choice of weapons found in the ship. The mig-21 is probably very good choice as something that could be arm with a nuclear device for striking their common enemy.

    The US government should take a serious look to this situation.

  • If you accept they were “outmoded”, but still in use, then they are active weapons of war. Referring to them as “obsolete” as the regime did was then no more than a smokescreen.

    Experts like Jane’s defense weekly still calls them a threat.

    They also say these system – missiles and radar guidance – can be upgraded to more modern standards like overcoming modern jamming devices.

    You are correct to ask the question on everyone’s mind: was this a sale of old but upgradeable equipment to North Korea – a rogue state and therefore a violation of the UN embargo – or a shipment on its way for maintenance.

    One would expect that Cuba has the expertise – or can get it from the Russian companies that made the equipment – to upgrade the weapons itself.

    Given they have been discovered we will most like never know the truth. The fact the transport was carefully hidden.

    Why they would use a ship like the Chong Chon Gang that has been flagged all over for drugs and other illicit trade is utterly stupid especially if this ship then also shuts off the transponder.

    Some history:
    – Iran: Feb 26 2003: detained for unspecified reasons
    – Ukraine Feb 1 2010: drugs, weapons and alcohol in contraband
    – Egypt March 1, 2010: unspecified “dangerous goods”

    “Seized missile radars on N. Korean ship a threat to aircraft”

    “Analysts question Cuba calling Korea ship weapons ‘obsolete'”
    North Korea ship has a checkered history

  • Why were the weapons hidden beneath the tons of sugar, if the only reason they were there was to be refitted? Why did the captain try to commit suicide – North Korean retribution for a job not well dome? Too many questions; not enough answers. Let’s see who talks himself out of this one. Ay dios! No es facil.

  • Obsolete likely means weapons and missile systems no longer in use by militaries with more modern systems, but still in use by countries with less modern systems like Cuba.

    There are still many unanswered questions such as whether this was a one way sale or if the weapons were to be repaired and returned to Cuba, but regardless this does seem like a violation of the UN weapons embargo against North Korea.

  • Interesting commentary at BBC:

    “Cuba’s admission that it was sending weapons to North Korea for repair, in contravention of UN arms sanctions, explains part of the mystery surrounding this ship. But other questions remain.

    Why not simply fly North Korean technicians and parts to Cuba to fix them instead of risking getting caught? Avoiding detection was obviously the plan when the ship had its AIS automatic transponder switched off when it left the Panama Canal to collect the Cuban weapons in June.”

    It seems the excuses offered by Cuba, that the weapons were obsolete and they were only sending them for repairs, are rather flimsy and irrelevant anyway. It was still in violation of the UN embargo on North Korea. It’s clear that the parties involved knew it was illegal, hence the subterfuge to hide the shipment.

  • Cuba knew the shipment violated the UN embargo against North Korea and that it violated Panamanian law, which is why the military equipment was hidden under the sacks of sugar. This reckless act speaks to the mentality of all those involved.

  • Obsolete weapons is what you destroy. You don’t ship it to the other side of the world.

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