Cuba escapes UN sanctions in North Korean weapons transport scheme

The United Nations has sanctioned a North Korean shipping company but spared Cuban entities in connection with a Cuban weapons shipment seized aboard a Pyongyang-bound freighter in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

Ocean Maritime Management Company, Ltd., a North Korean company that managed the freighter Chong Chon Gang when it was seized in Panama last summer, was added Monday to the list of violators of the embargo.

The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) committee that enforces the embargo said the company “played a key role in arranging the shipment of concealed cargo of arms and related materiel from Cuba.” Inclusion in the list carries banking and travel sanctions.

But the committee did not add to the list any of the Cuban enterprises or individuals involved in the shipment of 240 tons of Cuban MiG jet engines, anti-aircraft missile systems and munitions found aboard the Chong Chon Gang.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said in a statement that there were “irrefutable facts that clearly prove Cuba and (North Korea’s) intentions to violate sanctions by employing highly sophisticated deception and obfuscation techniques.”

“The United States remains concerned about attempts by North Korea to circumvent international sanctions, and strongly condemns any efforts by nations such as Cuba to assist in the illegal evasion” of the arms embargo, Power added.

Powell did not explain why no Cuban entities were added to the sanctions list, and her press office did not reply to El Nuevo Herald’s requests for comment.

Latin American diplomats at the U.N. had predicted earlier this year that Cuba would escape sanctions because Russia and China, which have vetoes on the Security Council , are close allies of Cuba.

“It’s unacceptable that even as the (UNSC) sanctioned the North Korean firm that operated the vessel carrying illegal arms from Cuba, it failed to similarly hold the Cuban regime accountable for its role in this flagrant violation of U.N. sanctions,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Tuesday.

UNSC experts on the arms embargo reported earlier this year that the shipment violated the embargo, even though Cuba claimed that the weapons were not being “transferred” to North Korea because they were to be serviced and returned to Havana.

The experts also reported that Cuba had refused to identify the Cuban entities and individuals involved in the shipment, saying the contract with Pyongyang required business privacy.

Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican indicated last week that Power knew the identities of the Cubans involved and urged the ambassador to push the UNSC sanctions committee to include them on the blacklist of “designated” entities.

One of the Cubans allegedly involved is Brig. Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, in charge of several military enterprises and the port of Mariel, where the weapons were loaded on the freighter. He’s also a son-in-law of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro.

The Chong Chon Gang docked in Havana June 4-9 of last year to unload cargo, then loaded the weapons aboard in Mariel and later sailed east to Puerto Padre to load a cargo of sugar that hid the arms. Its automatic location reporting system was off during most of its Caribbean sail.

Panama authorities stopped it on July 15, as it prepared to cross the Panama Canal on a trip to Pyongyang, on suspicion that it carried drugs. Instead, they found what the UNSC experts described as the single largest weapons shipment ever seized for violating the embargo slapped on Pyongyang in 2006 because of its nuclear weapons and long-range missile development programs.

The freighter and 32 of its crew were released in February after payment of a $700,000 fine for failing to declare the weapons in its cargo. The captain and two other officers were freed in June. The weapons remain in Panama and the sugar is up for sale.

A second North Korean freighter that ran aground off the eastern coast of Mexico earlier this month after a stop in Havana, meanwhile, was pulled off the Tuxpan reef on Saturday, according to Mexican news reports.

The 430-foot Mu Du Bong had raised eyebrows because its Caribbean sail had paralleled somewhat that of the Chong Chon Gang — with stops in Havana and Mariel and periods when its automatic locator was not working.

The freighter was empty when it ran aground near the entrance to the port of Tuxpan, one of Mexico’s main sugar-exporting ports, according to Mexican news reports.

Its automatic locator reported that it was near Mariel on June 25 and in Havana June 29-30, but then went silent for nine days. It started working again July 10, when it showed the freighter was in Havana and later that it was sailing west in the Gulf of Mexico.