Cuban weapons found in a freighter bound for North Korea “without a doubt” violate U.N. sanctions and some of it seemed intended for Pyongyang’s own use, not for repair and return as Havana claims, according to a report Tuesday.
The weapons shipment hidden in deliberately modified sections of the ship also was much larger than previously reported, and included anti-tank cannon and night vision equipment, said the report in 38 North, a U.S.-based Web page on North Korean issues.
Taken together, the evidence makes clear “that contrary to both the North Korean shipping declaration and Cuban government statements the shipment was without a doubt a violation of United Nations sanctions on North Korea,” it said.
The North Korea-flagged Chong Chon Gang declared a cargo of 10,000 tons of sugar and 2,000 empty polyethylene bags after it left Cuba and approached the Panama Canal in July on its way home. Panama authorities searched it after a tip that it carried drugs and found the weapons in 25 metal shipping containers hidden under the sugar.
Havana claimed the 240 tons of “obsolete” equipment, including two MiG-21 jets, 15 engines for the MiGs, nine missiles and parts and two anti-aircraft missile radar systems, was sent to Pyongyang for repairs only.
“The statement was misleading to say the least,” said the report, co-authored by Hugh Griffiths, a global arms trafficking expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, and research intern Roope Siiritola. 38 North is run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland.
The most obvious discrepancy, the report said, was that North Korea has a long record of trying to buy MiG-21s and engines for its own military in violation of the U.N. arms embargo sparked by its missile and nuclear weapons development programs.
What’s more, the fuselages of the MiG-21s “were rather carelessly packed” in 40-foot metal shipping containers, it added, with no protective padding covering sensitive parts that could have been damaged should the ship have encountered rough seas.
“The method of packing does not suggest that the aircraft themselves were to be ‘repaired’ and ‘returned’ to Cuba, but rather (were intended) for end use in North Korea” as scrap or spare parts, the report said.
In contrast, it added, the engines “were securely attached and adequately spaced … covered in layers of protective plastic sheeting and brown packing paper” and cradled in improvised transport frames, “suggesting their end use as replacement engines.”
North Korea attaches great importance to its fleet of MiG-21 jets, the report added, which may be “obsolete by western standards” but are capable of flying as fast as the KF-16, the South Korean variant of the U.S.-made F-16.
The shipment also included a variety of small arms, ammunition and conventional artillery ammunition for anti-tank guns and howitzer artillery as well as generators, batteries and night vision equipment, among other items, according to the report.
Many of the rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and artillery ammunition were “in mint condition … and much of it was in original packing cases,” it said. “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.
The report also noted that the shipping containers — each has a unique ID number — had not been used for declared cargo for many years and suggested they were taken out of storage “for the express purpose of transporting the sanctioned military goods to North Korea.”
The holds of the freighter, designed for bulk cargo such as sugar and grains, also were “deliberately modified” so that the containers could be hidden under the sugar cargo “to facilitate a clandestine transfer,” according to the report.
The report, which includes several previously unpublished photos of the weaponry, mentioned information gathered by Panamanian authorities and the U.N. Organization on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Container Control Programme (CCP).
It added that a report filed last week to the U.N. Security Council by the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea, which inspected the weaponry in Panama earlier this month, makes for “interesting reading” but did not mention any specific details.
The Chong Chon Gang and its 35-man crew remain detained in Panama, where the government has said that it will decide what to do with the freighter and the sugar only after the U.N. Security Council makes a ruling on the case.