U.S. Lawmakers Want Cuba Punished for North Korean Arms Shipment

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 27, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — U.S. law­makers on Thursday called for Cuba to be pun­ished for its il­leg­al weapons deal­ings with North Korea, ar­guing the in­ter­na­tion­al-sanc­tions re­gime would be un­der­mined if the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil does not pen­al­ize Havana.

The world learned of Cuba and North Korea’s secret arms com­merce in Ju­ly, when Panamani­an au­thor­it­ies seized a North Korean freight­er, the Chong Chon Gang, as it at­temp­ted to sail through the Panama Canal. A sub­sequent search of the cargo ship’s hold re­vealed 25 con­tain­ers filled with So­viet-made con­ven­tion­al weapons. Havana quickly claimed own­er­ship of the mil­it­ary hard­ware, say­ing it simply was be­ing trans­por­ted to North Korea for ret­ro­fit­ting, after which it would be re­turned to the Carib­bean na­tion.

“Fail­ure to hold the Cuban gov­ern­ment fully re­spons­ible will … be a slap in the face to our al­lies,” Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mat­thew Sal­mon (R-Ar­iz.) said at a House For­eign Af­fairs sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing. “If Cuba is al­lowed to get away with this this time, it would send a ter­rible mes­sage to Panama which put its re­sources and its repu­ta­tion on the line to in­ter­cept this ves­sel.”

Sal­mon, who chairs the Sub­com­mit­tee on the West­ern Hemi­sphere, said not rep­rim­and­ing Cuba “in the strongest terms avail­able” risks send­ing the mes­sage to oth­er coun­tries it is not worth  pur­su­ing fu­ture pos­sible vi­ol­a­tions of the sanc­tions re­gimes tar­get­ing North Korea and Ir­an.

Oth­er na­tions, such as Venezuela, could be em­boldened to think they can vi­ol­ate Se­cur­ity Coun­cil sanc­tions tar­get­ing rogue na­tions and get away with it, he said.

The Ari­zona law­maker said Cuba was car­ry­ing out a “charm of­fens­ive” at the United Na­tions aimed thwart­ing any pun­ish­ment from the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil com­mit­tee that is re­spons­ible for sanc­tions against North Korea.

“Laws … that are not en­forced and de­fen­ded will lose value and re­spect,” sub­com­mit­tee Rank­ing Mem­ber Al­bio Sires (D-N.J.) said. “The U.S. and the U.N. should demon­strate that there are con­sequences to de­fy­ing in­ter­na­tion­al laws.”

Sub­com­mit­tee mem­ber Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en (R-Fla.) cri­ti­cized the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for hold­ing talks with Cuba on mi­gra­tion and re­sum­ing mail ser­vices when Havana was car­ry­ing out secret weapon deals with Py­ongy­ang.

“What mes­sage do you think it sends to our com­mit­ment to re­gion­al se­cur­ity, to move ahead with talks with the [Castro] re­gime, des­pite this blatant vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al law like the one in­volving the North Korean ship?” the Flor­ida rep­res­ent­at­ive said.

A full ex­am­in­a­tion of the Chong Chon Gang’s hold by Panamani­an of­fi­cials turned up two anti-air­craft mis­sile sys­tems, nine broken-down mis­siles, anti-tank guns, small arms, ar­til­lery, rock­et-pro­pelled gren­ades and two MiG jet fight­ers,  among oth­er as­sor­ted aging con­ven­tion­al weaponry, ac­cord­ing to an Au­gust re­port by the Stock­holm In­ter­na­tion­al Peace Re­search In­sti­tute that was pub­lished by the web­site 38 North.

The en­tire weapons ship­ment was sub­stan­tially lar­ger and more di­ver­si­fied than what Cuba ini­tially claimed own­er­ship of back in Ju­ly, the SIPRI re­port found.

North Korea pre­dict­ably has denied do­ing any­thing wrong and de­man­ded that Panamani­an au­thor­it­ies give it back the Chong Chon Gang and re­lease its crew from cus­tody. Panama City has ig­nored those de­mands. The Panama Canal Au­thor­ity on Thursday im­posed a fine of up to $1 mil­lion on the ship’s own­ers, ac­cord­ing to a Re­u­ters re­port.

Sires said he doubted Cuba’s claim it was send­ing the weapons to North Korea for over­haul­ing.

“If only for re­pairs, then why did Cuba not ask oth­er na­tions in­stead of break­ing vari­ous U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tions,” he said. “With North Korea do­ing its best to re­fur­bish its mil­it­ary hard­ware, it is more likely that fight­er jets were in­ten­ded to stay in North Korea.”

SIPRI seni­or re­search­er Hugh Grif­fiths, who co-wrote the re­port, told the sub­com­mit­tee in an on­line video call that if Havana truly wants to show it was act­ing in good-faith in the Chong Chon Gang in­cid­ent, it must first in­vite in­vest­ig­at­ors from the U.N pan­el of sanc­tions ex­perts to the Carib­bean na­tion and provide full dis­clos­ure on all as­pects of deal — steps the Com­mun­ist gov­ern­ment there has not yet taken.

Grif­fiths said the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil sanc­tions pan­el should also in­vest­ig­ate voy­ages to Cuban ports by North Korean cargo ships that took place pri­or to Ju­ly.

“Some of these voy­ages may be as­sessed as car­ry­ing a high risk of pro­lif­er­a­tion con­cern on the basis of the ves­sel’s flag, age, past re­gis­tra­tion, own­er­ship pat­terns, its safety re­cord and, most im­port­antly, vari­ous voy­age rout­ing an­om­alies,” he said.

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