Cuba’s foreign ministry did not explain why the missile and aircraft equipment was – according to Panamanian officials – was undeclared and hidden in a shipment of Cuban sugar. Nor did it say why it was destined for repair in North Korea rather than Russia, where it originated.
And despite the ministry’s assertion that Havana respects international law, the shipping of any missile-related items to North Korea violates at least three U.N. Security Council resolutions, passed in response to North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and early this year.
The Cuban statement said that the ship, the MV Chong Chon Gang, had been “mainly loaded with 10,000 tons of sugar” but also carried “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons.”
These comprised Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two Mig-21 bis fighters and 15 engines for the planes, it said, “all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century.”
The ministry said the equipment was being shipped to North Korea to be repaired before being returned to Cuba, and that this was being done in line with “the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty.”
It concluded by declaring that Cuba “reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law.”
The Volga is a variant of the S-75 Dvina (NATO designation: SA-2 Guideline), the Soviet-made surface-to-air missile that was used to shoot down Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960. An S-75 was also used to down a U-2 plane over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, resulting in the death of Major Rudolf Anderson.
According to military historian Steven Zaloga’s 2007 book, Red SAM: The SA-2 Guideline Anti-Aircraft Missile, when the Soviets removed the ballistic missiles whose deployment in Cuba had triggered the nuclear crisis, they also withdrew most of the S-75 surface-to-air missiles – but agreed to leave behind 24 S-75 combat launchers and another six training launchers.
The Pechora (S-125) is also a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile, but with a shorter range and lower-altitude capability than the S-75.
North Korea and Cuba, both communist-ruled nations hostile to the U.S., have long had close relations. Panama’s announcement of the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang came just a fortnight after Cuban President Raul Castro hosted a North Korean military delegation headed by the army chief of staff, Kim Kyok Sik.
Cuba’s state news agency at the time quoted Kim as saying the visit had “allowed him to corroborate the island’s success in the defense of socialism in the face of U.S. aggressions.”
At the U.N. in New York, U.S. ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo said Tuesday the shipment “would be of interest to the sanctions committee” – a reference to a Security Council sanctions committee set up to oversee measures contained in resolution 1718 in 2006.
The resolution imposed an arms embargo on North Korea covering all nuclear, ballistic missile, WMD-related equipment, as well as all other weapons except for small arms and light weapons, which must be notified to the committee in advance.
Panama is among the more than 100 countries that have joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a plan launched by the U.S. in 2003 in a bid to prevent North Korea and other rogue states from transferring weapons of mass destruction or related material, by stopping and searching suspect vessels.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell confirmed that Panama was a PSI member and a “close partner” of the U.S., but said he could not say whether the U.S. had shared intelligence about the vessel before it was stopped.
Ventrell commended the Panamanian authorities for stopping and searching the Chong Chon Gang, which he said had a “well-known history” of involvement in narcotics smuggling.
According to Maritime-Connector.com Chong Chon Gang is a 9,000-ton bulk carrier built in 1977 and owned by Chongchongang Shipping Co. of Pyongyang.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said that when officials detained the vessel in the canal, the ship’s crew had tried to resist officials’ efforts to search the ship, and the captain had attempted to kill himself.
In early 2010 media in Ukraine reported that customs officials had searched the Chong Chon Gang at a port there, and found drugs – described as a “heroin substitute” – undeclared alcohol and cigarettes and ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles.
A report at the time by the UNIAN news agency in Kiev said the ship’s captain had told authorities he had obtained the AK47 bullets from locals in Somalia, in exchange for food.