North Korea’s Cuban Missile Crisis

Snappy titles aside, the Panamanian interdiction of Cuban arms bound for North Korea is about much more than missiles. It challenges the world’s sanctions regimes by testing member states’ abilities to meet, enforce and carry out their obligations. So far, it is a bizarre tale of deception, suicide, honor and Twitter! The end is not yet written, and while this is a clear violation of UN Sanctions, ultimately it will be Panamanian domestic law and resources that determine the outcome.

Just to review the bidding, a North Korean ship named Chong Chon Gang left Cuba for North Korea carrying a declared cargo of sugar. As it passed through the Panama Canal, the ship was diverted for drug inspection in the Port of Manzanillo on July 10, 2013. The crew violently resisted inspection efforts and the captain tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat. After days of violent standoff, the 35-member North Korean crew was taken into custody and the vessel was impounded. On July 15, President Ricardo Martinelli boarded the ship to view the inspection. Martinelli is an avid Twitter user and captured a picture of equipment found in a container hidden beneath sugar.

Tweet by Ricardo Martinelli, July 15, 2013.

On July 16, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry announced that the shipment contained “10,000 tons of sugar” and “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons… to be repaired and returned to Cuba.” Panama informed the UN Security Council of the seizure, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon commended Panama for seeking to meet its Member State obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions. North Korea defended its “legitimate contract” with Cuba and on July 17, demanded that the crew and ship be released. The United Nations Security Council is expected to send a team of experts to evaluate the situation in early August. Meanwhile, Panamanian Prosecutor Javier Caraballo hinted that the crew would be charged with “attempts against Panama’s Security” and “Illegally transporting undeclared military equipment.” As of July 22, the International Red Cross had visited the crew twice at Fort Sherman, where they are being held as charges are being brought against them.

DPRK Shipping

The Chong Chon Gang is a North Korean-owned and -flagged cargo ship. According to Loyd’s List (subscription), the craft “has a long history of detentions for safety deficiencies and other undeclared reasons.” Richard Meade, an analyst for Loyd’s List, told USA Today that its last recorded port of call was Vostochny, Russia, with a listed destination of Havana, Cuba. After leaving port on April 12, the ship stopped transmitting its position to the Automatic Identification System (AIS), as is required by international law. The ship again began transmitting to AIS approximately 7,500 nautical miles from Balboa, Panama on May 31. It was granted passage through the Canal on June 1 heading to Havana, however the ship again disappeared from AIS until it attempted to return to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.

Illicit Cargo

Initial photographs of the illicit cargo, including the one provided by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, showed a component of an RSN-75 ‘Fan Song’ radar, which is an engagement radar for the S-75/SA-2 family of surface to air missiles (SAMs). The equipment shown in Martinelli’s photo is a horizontal antenna, which, depending on orientation, is used to acquire or track targets for interception by the SAM.

The RSN-75 ‘Fan Song’ in a tweet by Martinelli, retweeted by Melissa Hanham.

Cuba later disclosed the cargo as including: “two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane.” Final determination on the cargo has yet to be announced. According to Cuba’s statement, the items were “to be repaired and returned to Cuba.”

The RSN-75 horizontal antenna belongs to the Volga, or S-75 Volga-M, which is an SA-2 surface to air missile. First designed by the Soviet Union in 1957, it was deployed in Cuba and it famously shot down an American U-2, almost precipitating nuclear war.

Completed SA-2 missile site. Photo: The National Security Archive, George Washington University

Both North Korea and Cuba deploy SA-2s with the RSN-75 ‘Fan Song’ radar, though Cuban SA-2 sites are gradually disappearing. There is still a very good example visible outside Havana at 23° 3’31.73″N, 82°29’19.72″W, which was visible as of February 2013.

The Pechora, or Isayev S-125 Neva/Pechora, is an SA-3 surface to air missile designed to complement SA-2 use. Both North Korea and Cuba employ the RSN-125 ‘Low Blow’ radar for the SA-3. Cuba displayed upgraded transporter erector launchers (TEL) for the SA-3 in a 2006 parade. SA-3 batteries can still be seen at: 23° 1’39.61″N, 82°24’30.59″W.[1]

The MiG-21 bis is used by both North Korea and Cuba. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted the pair found on the Chong Chon Gang on July 21.

Tweet by Ricardo Martinelli. July 21, 2013.
Tweet by Ricardo Martinenlli. July 21, 2013.

North Korea referred to the weapons as “aging” and Cuba referred to them as “obsolete” in their respective statements after the seizure. They were not kidding. This stuff exited its heyday decades ago. Both statements refer to “repair” or “overhauling.” As North Korea’s ballistic missile exports have declined, it has turned to exporting conventional weapons and providing components or refurbishment services as an alternative means of enrichment. That is likely what is happening here. Though speculative, it is also possible Polish protestations were true, and North Korea was the one that copied and exported the Polish W-125SC to Cuba.

It is not clear why Cuba wants the outdated equipment repaired, when the systems are so unevenly matched against modern American technology. The island nation’s neighbors are largely peaceful, though (sarcasm alert) it is possible that is only because they quake in their boots at the thought of mid-20th century arms. Still more baffling is why Cuba would take such a risk on North Korea when a similar repair contract could have been secured from companies in less-sanctioned countries.

The military, economic and diplomatic relationship with Cuba is not trivial to the isolated North Korean regime. Less than two weeks before the shipment was stopped, a North Korean military delegation led by Kim Kyok Sik, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) visited Havana. Cuban state media reported that the military-to-military exchange included “detailed information on combat readiness, staff training, and use of technology and weaponry.” The parties also reportedly inspected armored vehicles and toured military facilities, as well as economic and cultural sites.


Payment for North Korea’s repair of Cuba’s aging equipment has not yet been determined. There is a possibility that the 10,000 tons of sugar itself was compensation. Suspiciously, Cuban officials reportedly told Panamanian authorities that the cargo of Chong Chon Gang “was a donation of sugar to the people of North Korea.” Raw sugar prices are down 17% this year as the world leader Brazil’s exports increased while the Brazilian real fell against the US dollar. As of June 2013, sugar prices are $0.1629 per pound, making the shipment valued at approximately $3.5 million. Placing Cuba or North Korea’s precise valuation is a bit trickier. The two states have engaged in sugar trade since the 1970s, and North Korea used sugar as one of the key items on the distribution list in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung in April 2012.

UN Security Council Sanctions and the Panel of Experts

The United Nations Panel of Experts released its best report yet in June 2013. No sooner had the ink dried, than Panama stopped the Chong Chon Gang.

The Panel of Experts is comprised of eight specialists, each from a P-5 country, plus Japan and South Korea. More recently, a member from South Africa was added in an effort to diversify. Each participant has a focus related to the sanctions, such as nuclear or missile technology expertise, customs and export control enforcement, as well as finance and maritime transport. Though they officially represent the United Nations and are not beholden to any government, the usual diplomatic tensions are rife, and this definitely effects their reporting. The panel investigates about 30-40 cases at any given time. In addition to private incident and mid-term reports and the publicly available consensus report, the Panel conducts outreach by determining best practices, analyzing trends, and – most important to Panama – providing technical assistance to Member States. The Panel is not naive, and knows that its work at best buys time for diplomatic intervention rather than the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Despite the protestations from North Korea and Cuba, UN Sanctions are clear on this transaction.

UN Security Council Resolution 1874, Paragraph 9:

Decides that the measures in paragraph 8(b) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall also apply to all arms and related materiel, as well as to financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms or materiel;

Nevertheless, the sanctions have shortcomings, particularly with regard to the case currently unfolding in Panama. First, the sanctions frustratingly—though not surprisingly considering the makeup of the Security Council—do not provide a definition of small or light arms, which are an exception. Nonetheless, Member States are required to give five days’ notice before making any such type of transaction. Not a single state provided notice this year, let alone ahead of the attempted transfer between Cuba and North Korea.

Second, the financial component is still nascent and giant loopholes remain. While paragraph 9 clearly prevents “financial transactions,” barter—something North Korea is particularly fond of doing—is not covered. In this case, if sugar was indeed the compensation for North Korea’s services, it is not covered by UN sanctions, though the maintenance of arms and arms related material clearly is. Sugar, an important food staple, is still more diplomatically unpalatable to interdict.

Third, the shortcoming of all UN sanctions is that in order to be carried out, domestic laws supporting them must first be in place. Essentially, Panama has to codify the contents of the sanctions in its own national laws or have a kind of blanket “we are legally bound to uphold international treaties we participate in” type of statement. Thus, even though Member States are “obligated” to uphold United Nations Security Council resolutions, they still have to create a mechanism within their own jurisdiction to do so. This is why the United Nations takes national implementation so seriously.

Unfortunately, according to the recent Panel of Experts report, only 96—or approximately half—of Member States submit implementation reports. Of those states, 22 reported on UNSCR 1718 implementation, 2 reported on UNSCR 1874, and 72 reported on both. Furthermore, five states provided only initial or supplementary reports. Even more troubling is that the Panel of Experts finds that “the level of detail given in many of them is insufficient to judge if domestic legislation is sufficient to effectively enforce the sanctions.”

Lastly, Member States foot the bill of interdiction, unless a benevolent and wealthy patron is doing so behind the scenes. Panama is taking on tremendous cost associated with unloading and storing the cargo, interring and prosecuting the crew, and ultimately finding a safe and secure disposal of the seized items. While Panama should be lauded for its actions, one hopes they will not regret it. Jeffrey Lewis, reminds us of the Saga of the Monchegorsk, where Cyprus was required to store 98 canisters of Iranian munitions (2,000 tons of explosives) seized from a Cypriot-flagged ship bound for Syria. After more than two years of hand wringing and legal headaches, the munitions exploded killing 12, including the head of the Navy, and leveling the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base with an adjacent power station. Fortunately for Panama, sugar primarily attracts bees, not explosions. However, foreign experts have arrived to make sure the remaining cargo is not booby-trapped. That would be a tragic end to the story indeed.

The author would like to thank Mikaela Rear for her Spanish-language research assistance.

[1] For a deeper dive on both the SA-2 and SA-3 deployment in Cuba and North Korea, download Sean O’Connor’s excellent KMZ,

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