The Chong Chon Gang Seizure



Curiouser and curiouser! No sooner had the UN Panel of Experts released its excellent report on North Korean circumvention of sanctions than the Panamanian seizure hit the front pages (New York Times here). The idea that this was a services or repair contract gone bad is plausible, although very clearly in violation of UNSC sanctions resolutions. If true, it shows just how far North Korea has been isolated: the country has been reduced to providing services on a barter basis for military equipment that is decades old. But if this was a weapons transfer or sale from Cuba to North Korea, the inferences to be drawn are equally damning: that North Korea is importing military hardware long past its prime.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry statement contains an inventory of what they claim the ship was carrying. First was 10,000 tons of sugar, in 240,000 or so sacks. This is roughly equal to 200 standard Sugar No. 11 contracts, the world benchmark contract for raw sugar consisting of 112,000 pound lots. Sugar No. 11 contracts price the physical delivery of raw cane sugar, free-on-board the receiver's vessel to a port within the country of origin of the sugar. Current world market prices are about 16 cents a pound, which would put each lot at just under $18K for a total contract of about $3.5 million. Don’t hold us to this: our math is back of the envelope and we do not know the precise quality of the sugar or how such a contract would be priced by the Cubans. But that’s a fair amount of sugar and an order-of-magnitude guess at its value.

In addition,  the Cuban statement admits that “the above mentioned vessel transported 240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons–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, all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century, to be repaired and returned to Cuba.”

The weapons listed by name correspond with different generations of well-known Soviet-era systems: the Mig-21bis was the c. 1972--not a "mid-century"--variant of the workhorse Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fighter. The Volga and Pechora systems are variants of the S-2, S-75 and S-125 Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems; there is some history here, because an S-75 was probably what shot down both Gary Powers and the U-2 downed during the Cuban missile crisis. The “missiles” referred to in the inventory could be the Volga and Pechora SAMs or something altogether different.

Just so we are clear on the legal issues, following is the text from UNSC 1718 (October 14, 2006) that is germane:

“8 (a) All Member States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the DPRK, through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of

  1. Any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms, or related materiel including spare parts, or items as determined by the Security Council or the Committee established by paragraph 12 below (the Committee);…”

A weasely interpretation of this passage might suggest that the intent of the statute was to forestall transfers of large-scale conventional weapons systems to North Korea. The weapons in question, however, were a legitimate service contract, as the North Koreans subsequently claimed in their statement on the issue (see VOA coverage here) . But lest there be any ambiguity whatsoever on this point, a subsequent paragraph of 1718 specifically lays it to rest:

“8 (c) All Member States shall prevent any transfers to the DPRK by their nationals or from their territories, or from the DPRK by its nationals or from its territory, of technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of the items in subparagraphs (a) (i) and (a) (ii) above…”

Any questions? To our surprise, Cuba actually provided brief reports of its intention to comply with both UNSC 1718 (here) and its successor, UNSC 1874 of 2009 (here). These statements—although certainly not be taken at face value—marked a change in course from more overt cooperation during the early Kim Jong Il era; the Cuba Transition Project has reposted a useful history of these earlier relations from 2004. The tone of the Cuban statement is also lacking in the expected stridency; it talks sheepishly about the fact that the weapons systems are “obsolete” (if so, why bother to get them fixed?) and ends with a statement of its “firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for International Law (sic).”  However, a plain reading of the statute suggests clearly that Cuba is—by its own admission--in violation of its binding commitments under UNSC 1718. The decision to do this deal has left all of the Cuba experts puzzled (for example, the good cross-section tapped in an NPR feature).

But this interpretation begs the important question of whether the Cuban statement is in fact true. Given that the ship was intercepted on the Caribbean end of the canal going west, it does not appear that the weapons were headed from North Korea to Cuba; the UNSC would have prohibited that as well. Questions nonetheless remain. For example, was the sugar the barter payment for the services contract, thus making the deal cost-effective? Or would it have been more rational to put some North Korean technicians on a plane to Cuba?And if so, why didn't they do it?

Diplomatic and legal tussles will now ensue, and it appears that Panama has granted permission for North Korean diplomats to come to the country to discuss the issue and visit the crew. Panamanian statements suggest that they are grappling with the legal issues (for example, La Estrella here). On the one hand, the country has claimed that the undeclared shipment through the canal violates national security laws; on the other hand, they very quickly sought to bring in the UN—probably in the form of the Panel of Experts—to offer a judgment of whether the material is in fact in violation of UNSC resolutions. This is a perfect use for the Panel of Experts and we applaud it. Once an advisory judgment is made, however, the UN does not have either the authority or the logistic capacity to seize the ship and its cargo; that will be up to the Panamanians to manage. The likely outcome is that they will hold and destroy the contraband while deporting the North Koreans, including the hapless captain who apparently tried to commit suicide; perhaps the attempt on his own life stemmed from fears of what lied in store for him on his return.

But perhaps the suicide attempt was related to information that has yet to fully surface. We close with the most titillating bit so far. A New Observer story cites Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino on the nature of the cargo. “He said he didn’t know the precise type of armament found aboard the vessel, saying that “they are not conventional weapons” and that tests indicated some radiation emissions. [President] Martinelli called the cargo “sophisticated missile equipment,” in direct contravention of Cuban and North Korean claims. Cuban missile crisis II? Stay tuned.

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