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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