Cuba's Brown Sugar of Mass Destruction

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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To paraphrase Ricky Ricardo, "Raul Castro, you got some 'splainin' to do!"

Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, revealed yesterday in a radio interview and in Twitter posts that Panama had found "sophisticated missile equipment" on a North Korean ship bound homeward from Cuba. Such shipments would be a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1718, adopted in 2006 after one of North Korea's three nuclear tests. It forbids the import from or export to North Korea of most weapons systems besides small arms.

The blurry pictures of the illicit cargo, contained under a shipment of brown sugar, speak only to the cognoscenti. The weapons mavens at IHS issued a report saying that the containers probably held the fire-control radar for the SA-2 family of surface-to-air missiles, and speculated that the cargo was either a sale to North Korea or a shipment that was being sent for upgrading, with the brown sugar as payment.

Full details on other parts of the cargo have yet to be released. The violent reaction of the crew and its captain -- who apparently tried to commit suicide -- suggest that the shipment was covert. If it does indeed violate UN sanctions, it is an ugly reminder of the real face of Cuba's leadership and its alliances with the world's worst malefactors. Although the Cubans and North Koreans have had a fitful, and occasionally bizarre, relationship over the years, just two weeks ago the chief of staff of North Korea's army visited Havana. He probably wasn't there for the cigars.

The Cubans should have their noses rubbed in this at the United Nations, at a minimum. And the Obama administration would be wise to demand an end to such transactions as an ironclad condition for any further improvement in relations.

More broadly, this inspection is a reminder of the need to get other countries to tighten enforcement, and reporting, on North Korean sanctions violations, as a UN panel has repeatedly recommended. The ship involved, the Chong Chon Gang, is a repeat offender: In January 2010, the Ukrainian government seized handguns, ammunition, narcotics and psychotropic substances and other contraband on board. In light of the most recent seizure, the Ukrainians' contention that the 2010 shipment didn't seem to involve North Korea's government rings as hollow as one of the Chong's bogus cargo containers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net