The North Korean-flagged cargo ship Chong Chon Gang, center, sits docked… (Arnulfo Franco, Associated…)
MEXICO CITY— Cuba announced Tuesday that the missile parts the Panamanian government found hidden in a North Korean cargo ship heading home were part of a stash of aging military equipment in need of repair.
Cuba's Exterior Relations Ministry said the North Korean ship contained 240 metric tons, or about 529,000 pounds, of "obsolete defensive armaments" that were being sent to North Korea to be repaired and returned to Cuba; it said it also carried about 10,000 tons of sugar.
Among the armaments, the ministry statement said, were two antiaircraft missile systems, nine missiles "in parts and pieces," two MIG-21s and 15 engines for such planes.
"The agreements signed by Cuba in this area are based on the need to maintain our defense capability to protect national sovereignty," the statement said. "The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and irrevocable commitment to peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law."
It was unclear Tuesday night whether the shipment of the war materiel constitutes a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions that have targeted North Korea for continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program. Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, prohibits, among other things, the solicitation of "services or assistance" from North Korea for a range of military items, including missile systems and combat aircraft.
Cuba's announcement came less than 24 hours after Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said that parts of a missile system had been discovered hidden on the North Korean vessel. The discovery was made five days after the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was detained at Colon, on Panama's Caribbean coast, before it could pass through the Panama Canal and return to North Korea. Panamanian officials originally suspected the vessel was smuggling drugs.
Martinelli said the weapons were undeclared. He and other officials said the North Korean crew was uncooperative with Panamanian investigators and that the ship's captain attempted to commit suicide.
Whether international law was, in fact, respected, probably will be a matter for the United Nations. Before the Cubans declared ownership of the discovered items, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that a report probably would be sent to the U.N.'s sanctions committee.
"If indeed there were a shipment of arms on board this vessel, any shipment of arms or related material would violate U.N. Security Resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2094," he said, referring to the resolutions targeting the North Korean government.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), in a statement, called the incident "yet another example of why we need to treat Cuba as the international pariah that it is."
The discovery may also end up illustrating the desperation of a defiant communist government in Pyongyang that is increasingly isolated on the world stage, and hoping to at least bolster its relationship with ideological soul mates in Cuba. The two nations have shared diplomatic relations since 1960.
In late June, a North Korean military delegation headed by Gen. Kim Kyok Sik visited top Cuban military officials in Havana. The visit came four months after the U.N. Security Council responded to a North Korean nuclear test by tightening sanctions, which also prohibit the import or export of conventional weapons and items that could be used by North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
The visit also came as Myanmar, also known as Burma, an important North Korean ally, appears to be giving its old friend the cold shoulder. In November 2012, Myanmar's government agreed to abide by a U.N. resolution prohibiting the procurement of military goods and assistance from North Korea.
"They've got a very short list of allies with whom they can trade militarily," said Hugh Griffiths of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Griffiths said the ship probably got the attention of U.S. intelligence upon its arrival in a part of the Western Hemisphere that it rarely visits. In 2010, officials in Ukraine found drugs and small-arms ammunition aboard the ship, he said.
Ventrell said that the Chong Chon Gang had a "public record of narcotics smuggling."
Steve Atkiss of Command Consulting Group, a Washington-based company that advises the Panamanian government, said crew members dropped anchor to prevent being taken to shore and broke the onboard crane that could have helped unload the massive supply of Cuban sugar.
Panamanian officials, who before the Cuban announcement thought more contraband might be aboard, said it would take days to unload all of the sugar and conduct a thorough search.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official as saying, "We need to verify the facts first, but if [the seized items] are found to be materials for missiles, we can take actions as they violate the U.N. resolutions."
Times staff writers Ken Dilanian in Washington and Julie Makinen in Beijing and Cecilia Sanchez of the Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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