Cuba Says Weapons Hidden in Sugar Shipment Were Just Bound for North Korea for Repair

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: OK, this next story is a strange tale involving Soviet-era weapons and lots of sugar. I'm talking about the ship that was seized by authorities at the Panama Canal. It was en route from Cuba to North Korea with a shipment of brown sugar, and underneath the sugar there was a stash of weapons. Cuba admits it was responsible for the weird shipment, but it claims they were old Soviet-era defense systems and that they were supposed to be repaired in North Korea in their return to Cuba. North Korea's Foreign Ministry wants Panama to release the crew and the ship. Robert Kelly is a foreign policy expert at Pusan National University in Seoul. Kelly says the drama surrounding the seizure is unusual.

Robert Kelly: Traditionally then when the North Korean ships have been searched they haven't been met with violence like this. We've heard some stories about what happened, particularly that the captain of the ship tried to kill himself which seems pretty extreme. And that's probably because he will face punishment when he goes back. But North Korean ships have been seized before, particularly in Southeast Asia where North Korea does some shipping and there has been something like so, so yeah, this is pretty outrageous.

Werman: Cuba has said the military equipment was being sent to be repaired. I mean the way the gear is being described, it sounds like pretty outdated. Do you think that's a likely scenario, the repair story?

Kelly: Well, I mean until we have more information my inclination is to sort of take them at face value. We automatically sort of attribute the worst possible motives to North Korea at all times and frequently that's correct. It is true, however, to the credit of the South Koreans and the Americans on this, that North Korea is under sanction and it is technically illegal for Cuba to trade in any kind of military hardware with North Korea. So the Panamanians were on ground when they seized the ship, but we just don't know. I mean the Panamanians said it was high-tech missile equipment and then came later information saying, "No, it's old and out of date." So until the information is clear it's hard to know if they did the right thing.

Werman: So South Korea responded today and urged the UN to take up the case. What could the UN do?

Kelly: Well, you could always slap further sanctions on to the North Koreans, right? But to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure how well that will work anymore. I've actually abandoned North Korea myself. When you go, you fly through China, through Beijing, and when you get on nobody bothers to check your luggage or anything like that and people bring lots and lots of stuff from duty free alcohol and cigarettes and chocolate and all kinds of things like that. There's no effort on the Chinese part to really enforce UN sanctions, so I'm not really sure what else the UN can do. I mean I suppose their could be another resolution or something like that, but the North Koreans don't pay attention to that stuff.

Werman: Panama held the ship to search for drugs and then found these weapons. What kinds of goods move back and forth between Cuba and North Korea? Are the countries strong allies?

Kelly: Well, they were, I mean back in the day, back during the Cold War, ideologically they were relatively close, but my sense of the relationship today is that it's basically devolved towards realpolitik. The Cubans are also a fairly isolated state, right? And these states tend to trade among themselves, places like Zimbabwe and Pakistan and Iran and North Korea. I mean these states have these kinds of subterranean relationships where they're trying to sort of duck particularly American attention or IMF attention. So it doesn't surprise me that there's a relationship where the North Koreans would say, "Fix the weapons in return for ten thousand pounds of sugar," which is looks like was the trade, the barter trade on this one.

Werman: Robert Kelly at the Pusan National University in Seoul. Thank you for your time.

Kelly: Sure. Thank you for having me.