The Panama weapons seizure happened last month, before I ended my hiatus, but let me offer these brief observations.
First, good for Panama. Second, North Korea still doesn’t care what the U.N. Security Council prohibits (surprise!). Third, neither does Cuba. Fourth, we’ll gauge whether the administration is serious about sanctions enforcement by whether it sanctions any North Korea, Cuban, or other entities under Executive Order 13,551, which would allow the blocking of the assets of any entities knowingly involved in the transaction that are in, or that ever enter, the United States or its banks. North Korea’s “palace” economy still uses the U.S. dollar more than any other currency, and all international dollar-denominated wire transfers have to move through U.S. financial institutions, where they could be blocked.
I’m skeptical of the explanation offered by Cuba and North Korea that these are merely obsolete weapons being sent to North Korea for repair, before being returned to Cuba. The only word of this I’ll concede is “obsolete,” although the SA-2 remains a dangerous weapon, and modernized variants of this system are still in use in many countries. North Korea still uses many SA-2s, and also operates many MiG-21s. North Korea continues to purchase used MiG-21s from other countries. Most recently, a Mongolian general was caught selling surplus MiG-21s to North Korea. Cuba’s air force is, on the average, slightly less obsolete than North Korea’s, but its inventory is shrinking. It makes sense that Cuba would have surplus to sell off. It does not make sense that Cuba would ship obsolete aircraft to and from North Korea, knowing that they’d be subject to seizure on the way there or on the way back. This is an unreasonable risk to take for the sake of a few old aircraft that were ready for the scrap heap, and which could have been repaired legally in dozens of other countries.
North Korea and Cuba offer the “repair” story as if it acquits them of, or mitigates, their guilt for violating UNSC resolutions. They should have read paragraph 8(a)(i) of this resolution, and paragraph 7 of this one. Of course, if they had nothing to hide, why did they conceal the cargo, and why didn’t they notify the U.N. 1718 Committee of the shipment? (Because they had something to hide, silly.)
Next, look at the compressor blades on this MiG-21 engine:
They’re freshly painted. They look like they’ve already been refurbished.
Finally, the shipment contained other weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, that almost certainly weren’t being refurbished.
What this looks like is a purchase by North Korea from Cuba of weapons and sugar. But give the North Koreans credit where it’s due–for once, they’re importing something edible with their weapons for a change, although the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization helpfully informs us that the North Koreans’ priorities still haven’t shifted enough to feed their people. Maybe someone can write a post on 38 North explaining why this is the first sign of a reformist trend.
Of course, we can’t discount the possibility that the North Korean ship might have stopped in several other countries to deliver portions of its cargo to third-country customers. This would be par for the course for a North Korean ship, particularly one like this with a short range.
But to me, the most interesting thing about this shipment is “the millions of bees swarming around the sugar,” which have stung several of the Panamanians searching the ship. Where have we seen this before?