Cuba and North Korea: Playing with Fire

Vicente Morin Aguado

The North Korean ship docked in Panama. Photo:
The North Korean ship docked in Panama. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — We won’t know anything new about the North Korean vessel caught with a shipment of Cuban sugar and armaments until the inspectors sent to Panama issue their report. In the meantime, however, we can ask and try to answer a number of questions, in order to divest the incident of all sensationalism and get a bit closer to the truth.

Is Cuba currently in any political/military partnership with any of the United States’ major enemies, or, better, with no direct ties to the United States? The answer is NO.

In the last twenty-five years, at least, the country has not received a single shipment of offensive or defensive weapons. The last shipment of armaments I recall was a lot of 12 MIG-29s, sent to Cuba in the times of Gorbachev, who was then only honoring agreements entered into before he came to office.

From that point on, Cuba had no choice but to pay for such supplies, something which proved impossible for the country, involved, to make matters worse, in a complex litigation process with Russia as a result of the exorbitant debt inherited from its relations with the former Soviet Union.

The first conclusion to be drawn from this is that the Cuban government is telling the truth – and really couldn’t do anything else – in its declarations about the quality, origin and other aspects of the weapons detected on board the North Korean ship detained while crossing the Panama Canal.

Why, then, would the Cuban government attempt to smuggle 240 tons of weapons out of the country, when this armament is relatively low-impact and out of service? Evidently because the merchant ship belongs to Communist Korea, and relations between Washington and Pyongyang aren’t exactly cozy.

The key question is: what is the reason behind such a risky agreement between Cuba and North Korea? Authorities in Havana knew the risks involved well; so why did they do it? I don’t believe the weapon repairs planned will make a decisive contribution to the island’s defensive capacity.

We can only conclude that, behind the facade of this military transaction, there are political motivations involved. The two countries have been allies since the times of Kim Il Sung, and they wish to affirm these relations under the very noses of their eternal enemy, the United States.

We cannot undertake an analysis of prices here, but perhaps the repair of the weapons was meant to pay for the sugar shipment, which constitutes additional foreign aid to a country facing a severe food crisis. Perhaps it is an offer made by the North Koreans as a gesture of good will, to express their gratitude for Cuba’s sugar shipment, a highly valuable food product.

The truth of the matter is that the obstinate descendants of the Il Sung generation have mid-range missiles, thousands of combat planes and even nuclear warheads. They don’t need any of the old, Soviet-made junk Cuba could give them.

North Korea, in fact, continues to pursue its nuclear program undaunted. It even lets Washington know when it conducts a new test.

It would have been sound to declare the arms shipment before crossing the Canal. Concealing such a shipment does not seem at all prudent, particularly if we bear in mind the permanent tension that exists between either end of Panmunjom and the repercussions any conflict would have on neighboring countries.

Weapons are weapons and they will never be considered harmless, no matter what one declares.

Now, we are left with a media spectacle. We’ll be seeing inspectors, diplomatic declarations, threats and warnings. We still don’t know whether the armaments will be returned to Cuba, together with the sugar, before the ship is allowed to proceed to its final destination.
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]