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Panama Searches Impounded North Korean Cargo Ship


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

As of this morning, Panama still doesn't know quite what to do with that North Korean cargo ship its impounded. The ship was going through the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to North Korea. And when Panamanian authorities looked inside under thousands of bags of Cuban sugar, they found parts for missiles, jets and radar systems.

Here to help sort out this discovery is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Good morning.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: OK, this ship was coming from Cuba and Cuba got caught. Now, officials there were quick to offer an explanation that sounded - I mean, on the face of it - you know, rather innocent.

GJELTEN: They said, Renee, that this was old equipment that they needed, but that it was in bad shape - it was obsolete. They were sending it to North Korea, quote, "for repair." Now, the question is whether this would violate the U.N. arms embargo which bars countries from selling weapons to North Korea. Of course, it also bars North Korea from selling weapons to other countries.

It will really be up to the U.N. to determine whether this is a violation of the arms embargo. Some diplomats are saying that even if North Korea was only upgrading Cuba's weapons, it would still be a violation of the embargo.

MONTAGNE: And there's an inspection ongoing.

GJELTEN: Well, an inspection is necessary, officials say, because then they can determine what the real purpose of this shipment was, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, it seems like a risky move for both countries. Why would they be doing this, this sort of exchange?

GJELTEN: Well, Renee, both Cuba and North Korea are in desperate situations. They share that. North Korea is desperate for food, for hard currency, looking for any opportunity to do business with anyone willing to deal with them. For the Cubans, the price was right. I mean, who else would take payment for weapons repair in bags of sugar? They're both in tough shape, you know, that sort of makes them natural trading partners.

MONTAGNE: And North Korea is one of the world's most isolated countries. But Cuba is not that isolated. Does it really make sense for Cuba?

GJELTEN: Well, it's very pretty strange. Cuban experts are scratching their head because this doesn't go along with a number of trends in Cuba. First of all, this military equipment is basically useless whether it's repaired or not, Renee. And Cuba is not in any danger of being attacked. So this material really wouldn't help Cuba defend itself.

Also, Raul Castro has emphasized economic reforms in Cuba. Why would it be investing anything in upgrading old military equipment?

And finally, the strangest thing of all is this is certain to anger the United States just at a time when Raul says he's interested in improving relations with the United States.

MONTAGNE: Meaning what, potentially, for U.S.-Cuba relations?

GJELTEN: Well, that is the big question, Renee. Because just this week, the United States and Cuba resumed talks over a migration agreement. There have been talks over restoring postal service between the two countries. Some politicians in the United States are now saying that those talks should be put on hold. Yesterday, the State Department said that the talks will continue. But I think we haven't seen the last of that yet.

MONTAGNE: And, Tom, do we know whether this was an isolated case?

GJELTEN: That's another topic for investigation. This particular ship was suspicious because of its past record; its past movements had already raised concerns that it was involved in some kind of illicit trafficking. And we have now learned that there was another ship, Renee, that passed through the Panama Canal from Cuba to North Korea. That one passed without inspection.

I can tell you that we're going to be very close watching now in the future for additional shipments from Cuba to North Korea. Those are going to get a lot of attention.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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.