A NORTH Korean ship alleged to have smuggled missile equipment from Cuba in a cargo of sugar appears to have violated a United Nations arms embargo, Britain’s ambassador to the UN has said.
The ship was stopped at the Panama Canal last week and the crew later arrested after Panamanian authorities found the missile-shaped objects.
Yesterday UN ambassador Mark Lyall-Grant said: “Clearly the facts still need to be established. But on the face of it, the transfer of these weapons to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime on North Korea. There are questions to be answered, which need to be followed up.”
Under current sanctions, all UN member states are prohibited from directly or indirectly supplying, selling or transferring arms, missiles or missile systems and the equipment and the technology to make them to North Korea, with the exception of small arms and light weapons.
Acting on undisclosed intelligence, Panama seized the rusting, 34-year-old North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang on 11 July as it headed toward the Caribbean entrance of the canal on its way to the Pacific and North Korea.
Hidden under some 240,000 white sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar, Panamanian officials found shipping containers with parts of a radar system for a surface-to-air missile defence system.
North Korea has not commented on the seizure, in which 35 of its nationals were arrested after resisting police efforts to intercept the ship. The captain had a heart attack and also tried to kill himself, said Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli.
Following the interception, Cuba has now acknowledged the cargo included 240 tonnes of “obsolete defensive weapons”: two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two MiG-21bis and 15 engines for those fighter aircraft. The equipment was meant to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba, Havana said.
North Korea has a considerable capability to repair and upgrade Soviet-era military equipment, and has a track record of trading technical help for commodities such as sugar, experts said.
At the same time, North Korea is known to be seeking to get spare parts for its own weapons systems, particularly MiG fighters. That raises the possibility that in lieu of cash, Cuba was paying for the repairs with a mix of sugar and jet equipment.
“We think it credible they could be sending some of these systems for repair and upgrade,” said Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Intelligence. “But equally there is stuff in that shipment that could be used in North Korea, not going back.”
Hugh Griffiths, arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said: “It looks like it was a violation of the UN sanctions, and this is why there was an effort to camouflage and conceal it.”
In 2010, the South African navy intercepted a shipment of upgraded tank engines being transported from North Korea to Congo-Brazzaville.