The Slatest

Cuba’s Questionable Explanation for Why It Was Sending Missiles to North Korea

View of the hold of North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang at Manzanillo harbour in Colon, 90km from Panama City.

Photo by RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

Cuba has come right out and said what most observers already suspected: The missile parts the Panamanian government found hidden in a North Korean cargo ship heading home last week were in fact from Cuba.

The more surprising—and troubling—news, however, was the explanation from Raúl Castro’s government: The 240 tons of weapon and plane parts were “obsolete defensive armaments” that were simply being sent to North Korea so they could be repaired and then returned. “The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and irrevocable commitment to peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law,” the country said in a statement released late last night.


Of course, if Cuba and North Korea weren’t doing anything wrong, one might wonder why the secret cargo was hidden underneath thousands of tons of sugar—or why, upon being stopped, the captain reportedly had a heart attack and also tried to commit suicide. There’s also the not-so-small matter of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, which strictly forbids the exchange of arms or any kind of military assistance with North Korea. The Los Angeles Times reports that while U.N. officials remain tight-lipped about any definitive law breaking, the ship will be fully searched in a few days, which should open the door for any U.N. repercussions that may follow.

Possible sanctions aside, international arms experts have their doubts about whether the official explanation is even legitimate. The Associated Press notes that many see the obsolete/repair excuse as “potentially credible” but also one that raises some red flags. “We think it is credible that they could be sending some of these system for repair and upgrade work,” Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Intelligence, told the AP on Wednesday. “But equally there is stuff in that shipment that could used in North Korea and not going back.”