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Panama Busts Ship Smuggling Weapons from Cuba to North Korea
Panamanian authorities are crowing about seizing a North Korean freighter on its way from Cuba. They found missile and rocket parts among sacks of Cuban sugar in the hold. The freighter was trying to enter the Panama Canal, presumably on its way back to North Korea when it was stopped and searched. So what's with the missiles? Japanese public broadcaster NHK is all over the story.


Cuban officials have met a stash of weapons on the North Korean cargo ship came from their country, but they say the Soviet era arms were being sent to the North for repair. Authorities policing the Panama Canal discovered the weapons hidden in a shipment of sugar. Panama's president Ricardo Martinelli announced a seizure in a radio interview. He said authorities have found what he called sophisticated missile equipment. The thirty-five members resisted the efforts to redirect the ship into port. Investigators have detained them. They said the ship's captain tried to commit suicide. Defense consultants with IHS Jane's Intelligence analyzed military hardware. They identified the equipment as high-performance radar for surface to air missiles. US State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said the ship has a history of involvement in drug smuggling. He said US officials strongly support Panama's decision to inspect the vessel.
Officials at the Cuban Foreign Ministry released a statement on state-run TV. They said that the ship was carrying the obsolete weapons for repair in North Korea. Those weapons included Soviet-era missile systems, fighter planes, and spare parts. The official insisted they are committed to nuclear disarmament and they that have respect for international law.

The war leaders have long been trying to control North Korea's military ambitions. The UN imposed sanctions including strict regulations on arm shipments, following the country's first nuclear test in 2006. The sanctions were strengthened after the third test this February. But in spite of the international pressure, the reclusive nation has been found to be illicitly exporting military equipment to other countries.

A security council expert panel reported on the North's attempt to transport missile propellant in 2007 and gas masks and chemical protection suits in 2009. Joining us now is Choi Jong-kun, professor at Yongsei University in Seoul. He's an expert on international relations. Professor, thank you for coming in. North Korean leaders appear more conciliatory in the past few months trying to renew dialogue with the international community, but still they continue to transport military equipment. What do you think Kim Jong-un's strategy is here?

Professor Choi Jong-kun:
I don't think that Kim Jong-un has a grand strategy at this juncture. If we all know, North Korea has been severe in the United Nations sanctions. I think that North Korea will engage in any economy activities that will make them money. So I think what they've been trying to do is to engage in commercial activities that makes them money. So I don't see any grand rational overall strategy. Just North Korea is trying to survive.

Professor, the international community is increasing pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Even its longtime ally China has stepped up economic sanctions.  Does the location of the seizure tell us anything about the position that North Korea finds itself in?

Choi Jong-kun:
Obviously, it's a bad time for North Korea. North Korea is trying to engage in dialogue. It confirms their rogue image, transporting and spreading weapons. However, if you look at what they have found now is that it's really old obsolote defense weapons owned by the Cuban government. The Cuban government argued that they tried to send these weapons for repair. And from the perspective of North Korea this is a nice cash cow activity.

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