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Weapons for Pyongyang

Gabriel DomínguezAugust 29, 2013

Cuba recently claimed the weaponry seized from a North Korean ship in Panama was headed for repair. But experts argue the fighter jet parts found aboard were intended for use by Pyongyang, in violation of UN sanctions.

North Korean container ship ''Chong Chon Gang'' is seen at the Manzanillo International container terminal dock in Colon City August 14, 2013.(Photo: Reuters)
Image: Reuters

In mid-July a vessel traveling from Cuba to North Korea was seized on suspicion of drug trafficking as it was heading to the Panama Canal. But this was no ordinary ship. The 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang had a history of being detained on suspicion of smuggling and what Panamanian authorizes found aboard the North Korean ship confirmed their suspicions. Hidden underneath some 240,000 white sacks of Cuban raw brown sugar were tons of weaponry.

Shortly after the seizure became public, Cuban authorities reacted by claiming the undeclared shipment as its own, with the foreign ministry listing a total of 240 metric tons of weaponry hidden in the ship. The Caribbean nation also pointed out that the arms discovered on the vessel were "obsolete defensive weapons" from the Soviet era, meant to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba, a statement Pyongyang later confirmed.

'Misleading claims'

But more than six weeks later, the full extent of the ship's falsely declared cargo has been disclosed and the conclusions drawn by experts contradict the previous claims. According to a report by "38 North," a website run by the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland, the cargo was much larger than originally reported. "The statement was misleading to say the least," the authors of the report said.

"While initial media reporting suggested the seizure amounted to a few shipping containers with anti-aircraft missile components, two jet fighters and related engines, in fact a total of 25 shipping containers have now been recovered, together with six military vehicles," the report said.

Night vision equipment as part of the cargo of the Chong Chon Gang (Copyright: SIPRI and 38 North) Night vision equipment.
The ship was also tranporting a variety of small arms, artillery and night vision equipmentImage: SIPRI/38 North

The ship is said to have also been transporting a variety of small arms and light weapons ammunition, conventional artillery ammunition as well as generators, batteries and night vision equipment, among other items.

The various rocket-propelled grenades and conventional artillery were in "mint condition," and in their original packaging. "They clearly were not to be repaired and returned to Cuba. Rather, these items were intended simply for delivery to North Korea for its own use," said Hugh Griffiths, a global arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), who co-authored the report.

One of the most significant findings by 38 North analysts, based on photographs and reports from Panamanian authorities and the UN, is related to the MiG-21 jet parts on the ship. The MiG fuselage, they said, was rather carelessly packed with no protective padding covering the more sensitive extremities, suggesting there were intended to be culled for spare parts.

The aircraft engines, on the other hand, were "securely attached and adequately spaced," suggesting they were meant to be used as replacement engines. "In any event, the method of packing does not suggest that the aircraft themselves were to be repaired and returned to Cuba, but rather for end use in North Korea," the analysts concluded.

A means to 'increase survivability'

According to SIPRI, North Korea has a track record of attempted illicit or clandestine procurement of MiG engines as well as of the MiG-21 aircraft in general, having attempted to procure jet spare parts and engines on at least three separate occasions.

While the MiG-21 might be regarded as obsolete by Western standards, SIPRI experts argue that it remains a fast aircraft even by 21st century standards. "With a maximum speed of Mach 2, it is as fast as the KF-16, the South Korean variant of the American F-16 that forms the mainstay of Seoul's fighter fleet." The MiG's speed and maneuverability could "increase the survivability" of the North Korean regime, particularly in a surprise or ground attack role, the analysts said.

This view is supported by experts at the global analytics firm IHS Jane's who said in a statement that North Korea's air defense network "is arguably one of the densest in the world, based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars."

A sanctions violation 'without doubt'

In light on the findings, a preliminary report by a panel of United Nations experts who investigated the arms seizure determined that the ship had been in violation of UN sanctions, the Panamanian Security Ministry said in a statement.

Carelessly packed fuselage as part of the cargo of the Chong Chon Gang (Copyright: SIPRI and 38 North)
The MiG-21 fuselage was carelessly packedImage: SIPRI/38 North

"According to the first report presented by the panel of experts from the UN Sanctions Committee, the Cuban weapons found in the North Korean ship 'without doubt' violate the UN sanctions, which validates Panama's position on how it acted," the ministry said, citing the report, which hasn't been made public yet. No further details were given.

Among other things, current UN resolutions ban North Korea from importing and exporting weapons, with the exception of small arms. It also lets countries inspect cargo inside or transiting through their territory that originated in North Korea. The sanctions, linked to Pyongyang's nuclear program, have limited North Korea's arms sales and are hurting the Communist regime's ability to acquire conventional military equipment.

Sanctions 'unlikely' to follow

The Panamanian statement also made reference to a meeting between Panama city officials and North Korean diplomats on August 29 which centered around the future of the crew and ship, which is still detained in the Atlantic port of Manzanillo. Panamanian officials said they would return the ship to its registered owner as soon as North Korea repaired the vessel's power supply.

A view from on board North Korean flagged ship "Chong Chon Gang" docked at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City July 16, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
The intercepted shipment is unlikely to lead to more sanctions on North KoreaImage: Reuters

Griffiths told DW he believed the intercepted shipment is unlikely to lead to more sanctions on North Korea. However, he added UN experts might recommend the Security Council to add individuals or entities involved in the transfer to a UN sanctions list, which could lead to travel and financial restrictions on those added.