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What Missile Shipment Says About Cuba-North Korea Relations


And moving on now to a mystery in Panama. A North Korean ship was stopped there as it was cruising through the Panama Canal carrying military supplies from Cuba. Missile and aircraft parts were hidden beneath bags of sugar in the cargo hold. North Korea is subject to a U.N. arms embargo and the North Korean crew is said to have violently resisted an effort to inspect the ship. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the latest.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Just about every aspect of this story is bizarre. Two states, both fiercely anti-American, engage in a secret arms transaction that could well be in violation of a U.N. embargo. The North Korean crew puts up a fight. The ship captain allegedly tries to kill himself. Under thousands of bags of sugar, the cargo. The Panamanians said they found missile parts.

Cuban authorities acknowledged the shipment, saying in addition to those missile parts, they had shipped Mig 21 aircraft components to North Korea for repair. Hal Klepak, a Canadian expert on the Cuban military, says up to that point, the story does make sense.

HAL KLEPAK: The Cubans need desperately to repair their Mig 21s, which are 1958 vintage, really very, very old aircraft indeed. They're terribly old, but they're what Cuba have.

GJELTEN: As for the missile components, they've been identified by arms experts as part of an SA2 system, an anti-aircraft package that by its age, could have been in Cuba since the 1960s when Fidel Castro worried the United States was going to attack him. So why would Cuba send this stuff to North Korea? Hugh Griffith(ph) is an arms traffic specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and he has an explanation.

HUGH GRIFFITH: Not only do North Koreans offer military equipment, but they can provide very low cost technicians to service, repair or upgrade relatively unsophisticated Soviet era military equipment.

GJELTEN: So maybe the North Koreans were going to service the equipment for the Cubans, being paid in sugar, a barter arrangement, good both for food-starved North Korea and cash-starved Cuba. Or maybe the North Koreans bought the old equipment from Cuba with the intention of upgrading it and reselling it to someone else. David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says it's hard to see how the Cubans could figure that that old anti-aircraft missile system, even upgraded, would be of any use against the U.S. Air Force.

DAVID WRIGHT: The radars that go along with it, if they have not been updated, are probably not very good. And because it's been around so long, countries like the United States and Japan and other countries have long ago figured out how to fool the - jam the radar systems. And so, to a modern adversary it's probably not a big threat.

GJELTEN: Meanwhile, the downside to Cuba of this transaction, the risk of getting caught engaging in a possibly illicit transaction with North Korea seems huge. Hal Klepak isn't sure what to think.

KLEPAK: It may well have been an expensive mistake for Cuba.

GJELTEN: Frank Mora, until recently the top Pentagon official responsible for Western Hemisphere affairs, says he's scratching his head trying to understand what the Cubans were thinking. After all, he points out, Raul Castro has been saying he wants better relations with the United States.

FRANK MORA: This doesn't make sense because it doesn't fit with a more pragmatic approach that Raul Castro had versus his brother. This is a very high-risk effort to try to smuggle these engines and other things for very little gain.

GJELTEN: The United States and Cuba, in fact, are currently engaged in talks to restore mail service between the two countries and to update an agreement on how to handle Cuban migration to the United States. A State Department spokeswoman today said the United States is prepared to offer Panama assistance in identifying the arms material seized on the North Korean ship.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.