Written by Cole Pfeiffer

Contrary to popular belief, North Korea may be able to find alternative ways to keep its weapons economy alive. Last July, a North Korean cargo ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was detained by Panamanian officials for violating United Nations weapons sanctions as it was heading toward the DPRK with 420 tons of Cuban weaponry hidden under 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar. While the vessel’s captain claimed to be carrying humanitarian food aid, the freighter was shipping a variety of operational weaponry, including MiG-21 fighter jets, small arms, and anti-aircraft systems to the East Asian state.

Following the incident, UN investigators travelled to Havana last week to discuss the controversial seizure with Cuban officials.

Isolated incident?

The discovery of operational weaponry on the Chong Chon Gang came as a surprise for both the United States government and the Panamanian officials who searched the vessel. The Panamanian raid was the result of a tip claiming that the ship was smuggling illegal drugs, not arms. U.S. officials were later shocked that the North Koreans would choose to transport such an illegal cargo through an American-backed choke point.

Panama police officers stand guard at containers holding arms seized from a North Korean flagged ship in Colon City

Panama police stand guard in front of the North Korean shipment seized last July [Photo credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso]

Some note that the shipment was not unprecedented. The evidence suggests that arms trafficking between the two countries can be traced back at least a decade to 2001, when a senior Cuban army official visited Pyongyang to “strengthen relations” between the two nations.

The ties between the two states can be described as a marriage of convenience between two rogue nations left adrift by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The North Korean regime, which faces a myriad of UN sanctions and trading bans, is forced to trade with other outcast states.

At the same time, Cuba has a huge cash incentive to unload some of its outdated, Soviet-era weaponry to third parties. It should come as no surprise, then, that the July incident is probably not an isolated case.

The threat

Authoritarian states such as the DPRK pose a serious risk to global security, not only because of their tendency to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), but also because of their willingness to find alternative partners when the largest ones refuse to trade with them.
North Korea has been known to use its nuclear arsenal as a leverage to extract aid from Western powers. A recurrent strategy by the North Korean regime has been to temporarily appear open to proliferation talks in order to gain sanction relief and then immediately return to an aggressive nuclear stance.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un [Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images]

The North Korean case is further complicated by the country’s  relationship with China. Beijing, looking to maintain a buffer zone between its borders and the U.S.-backed South Korea, has been increasingly willing to financially back the DPRK.

China’s ambiguous stance is unlikely to change in the near future.

The way forward

The U.S. should, wherever possible, maintain its hard line against the North Korean regime. U.S. policymakers should consider adopting a guarded stance toward North Korean goodwill campaigns and take steps to ensure that the country does not avoid sanctions.

By supporting its close allies in the region, namely South Korea and Japan, the United States will ensure important help in keeping the region safe. Additionally, by encouraging its allies to increase patrols and share their intelligence, the U.S. military could more easily track North Korean shipments and movements.

The U.S. should also encourage the international community to improve upon the UN sanctions regime toward the DPRK. The U.S. government needs to reexamine its role in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an organization of 72 member states, including the U.S., which aims to limit arms proliferation among authoritarian states. The PSI’s capacity to limit proliferation should be increased by ensuring that it has sufficient resources and that it can count on thorough international intelligence sharing.



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