Smuggling Cuban Weapons through the Panama Canal to North Korea

On July 22, the Panamanian authorities investigating the Cuban shipping scandal that broke last week revealed that they had found two MiG-21 fighter jets and parts in addition to the large supply of surface-to-air missile systems found aboard the North Korean vessel.

The ship, the Chong Chon Gang, and its North Korean crew were detained two weeks ago when authorities received intelligence that the ship, which reportedly contained only a “humanitarian gift of sugar from Cuba to the North Korean people,” was also transporting drugs. While investigations to date have not corroborated that claim, they have so far unearthed the fighter jets, two anti-aircraft missile batteries, 15 jet engines, and nine dissembled rockets—and only one of the ship’s five cargo decks has been searched.

Following the weapons’ discovery, the Cuban government released a statement assuring that the out-of-date, Soviet-era arms were en route to North Korea for repairs and updates in exchange for the sugar—services the Asian state is equipped to provide.

But many have raised concerns that at least some of the weapons had North Korea as their final destination, particularly in light of the country’s attempts to acquire MiGs from other sources in recent months.

For its part, the North Korean government has demanded the release of the ship’s crew and the return of the ship, all of which Panamanian authorities have dismissed.

What makes this shipment so controversial? If a “legitimate business deal” is all that’s at play here, as Cuban authorities insist, why do their Panamanian counterparts object?

Q1: Why are these weapons important?

A1: The shipment of Cuban arms to North Korea by means of the Panama Canal is controversial for two reasons.

First, from the Panamanian government’s perspective, the shipment violates the Regulations for Navigation in Canal Waters, the maritime code that dictates the appropriate use of the canal.

According to the code’s list of maritime safety offenses, the “carrying of weapons, devices or illegal or dangerous substances not authorized by the [Canal] Authority” is illegal and punishable by Panamanian law. The weapons aboard the Chong Chon Gang were undeclared, and thus unauthorized. Experts in international law believe Panama’s authorities have acted well within their rights in detaining the ship and its crew.

Second, Panamanian, U.S., and UN authorities have raised concerns that the shipment of weapons to North Korea, regardless of the Canal’s regulations, may well be in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which prevents “the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of arms, related materiel, and spare parts to the Asian nation.

Even if Cuba is able to substantiate its claim that the weapons were intended to stay in North Korea only long enough to be repaired and upgraded before their return to the Caribbean, the broad language of the Resolution still puts Cuba in violation of international law.

How that side of the legal battle will play out remains to be seen, as UN Security Council experts are not expected to arrive in Panama City until August 5. After their arrival and investigation, the Security Council will determine if the shipment violated the arms embargo.

Q2: What are the implications of the events as they have unfolded?

A2: The implications of this still-unfolding event have a few dimensions.

On one level, it is important to assume that this shipment it not unique. For this shipment to have been caught implies that other illegal shipments are likely to have come through the Canal in the past.

The South Korean government certainly believes that to be true. The country’s officials have long claimed that North Korea was smuggling cargo through the Panama Canal but the claims have fallen on deaf ears, dismissed as no more than an expression of the neighbors’ decades-long rivalry.

But given this recent shipment, it seems that South Korean officials may well have been right.

The smuggled cargo and Cuba’s involvement in the shipment may also affect U.S.-Cuban relations, which had seemed to be on a slow but reparative road in recent months. While the shipment, and other shipments like it, likely poses no real danger to U.S. security as the weapons are hardly more than relics of a bygone era, Cuba’s involvement reinforces its image as a state that has yet to earn the U.S. government’s trust.

Conclusion: Given all that’s happened, what does this mean for Cuba moving forward?

Ultimately, Cuba’s willingness to work with North Korea is not surprising, particularly should the repairs-and-upgrades story check out.

Both states are seen as pariahs in the international system, especially from a U.S. perspective. Because more typical, above-the-board interactions are less available to ostracized states, they must turn to one another and engage in below-the-board deals—deals which, for better or worse, reinforce their role outside the straight-and-narrow.

Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, intern scholar with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Carl Meacham