Panama stopped a ship carrying Soviet-made Cuban weapons to North Korea on July 15, charging a violation of UN Security Council sanctions that prohibit transfers of arms to Pyongyang.
The intercepted shipment provides further evidence that North Korea continues to evade sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions and that Pyongyang “likely uses these networks to continue developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” a former UN official told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 23 e-mail. North Korea’s continued development of these programs is prohibited by Security Council resolutions.
The former official said the Panama incident supports the conclusion reached in a June 11 report by a UN panel of experts, which highlighted the “uneven implementation” of the sanctions resolution. The panel was first authorized in 2009 to study the implementation of a series of sanctions approved by the UN Security Council starting in 2006.
Together, Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087, and 2094 prohibit arms sales and transfers of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to North Korea, ban the sale of luxury items to Pyongyang, and give states broad authority to inspect North Korean cargo suspected of violating these measures if it passes through their territories.
Panama used this authority to stop the ship on the suspicion that it was trafficking drugs, which is prohibited by the resolutions. But when inspecting the ship, Panamanian authorities found 240 tons of armaments, including two MiG fighter jets and nine anti-aircraft missiles.
The United States supported Panama’s decision to inspect the ship, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at a July 16 briefing. Although Ventrell said there is a process for determining if a specific case is a violation of UN sanctions, he said that “any shipment of arms or related materiel” would violate Security Council resolutions. UN experts began an investigation of the ship Aug. 13 and are to produce a report on whether the shipment is a violation of the sanctions resolution.
According to a July 16 statement by the Cuban Foreign Ministry, the “obsolete defensive weaponry” was being shipped to North Korea for repair.
In a July 17 statement, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said the weapons were to be sent back to Cuba after “overhauling them according to a legitimate contract.” He called on Panama to release the ship, crew, and weapons.
Security Council Resolution 1874, approved in 2009, extends the 2006 prohibition on arms sales to and from North Korea to include the repair and maintenance of systems, unless a notification is sent prior to the shipment. Cuba apparently did not send any such notification.
The former official said that although the repair story is plausible and that the obsolete armaments would be unlikely to add strategic value to North Korea’s weapons systems, the incident raises “broader concerns” about what is slipping past export controls into Pyongyang.
Looking toward the future, he said that “efforts should focus on implementation of existing sanctions, rather than the imposition of new measures.” He noted that the June report found that only about half of the UN member states have submitted reports on their implementation efforts. More complete reporting will give a better picture of where implementation gaps still exist, he said.
The UN panel concluded in its report that sanctions have not halted North Korea’s development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs but that they have likely “delayed the timetable” and “choked off significant funding” for these activities.
North Korea has not recently displayed any new ballistic missiles, which is consistent with the conclusion in the report that sanctions are affecting the program. Michael Elleman, who served as a missile expert for the UN team that conducted weapons inspections in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, said in an Aug. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that longer-range missiles paraded during North Korea’s Victory Day celebrations in July marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War “appear to be display mock-ups.”
North Korea displayed these same missiles, which experts have concluded are fake, during previous parades, such as the April 2012 parade that first featured the KN-08, also known as the Hwasong-13. (See ACT, March 2013.)
Elleman, who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that these mock-ups are of “better quality” than previous fakes but that the “inconsistent features” on the missiles “suggest convincingly” that they are not flight ready.
Neither system has been flight-tested, and it is not clear if either is currently under development, he said, noting that there have been rumors of engine tests for the Hwasong-13 but no details as to the size or power of the engine.
Despite the sanctions, North Korea appears to be expanding its nuclear facilities. An Aug. 7 report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) says that North Korea has expanded the building that houses its centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Using satellite imagery, the report concludes that Pyongyang began expanding the roof of the building housing its centrifuges at the Yongbyon site in March 2013 and that the area now covered is twice the size of the original structure. According to the ISIS report, this could allow North Korea to double the number of centrifuges contained in the building, which Pyongyang said was 2,000 in 2010.
It is unknown if or to what level North Korea is enriching uranium or if other uranium-enrichment facilities exist within the country. North Korea is known to have a stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium. It tested nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013.