In mid-July, the Panamanian government seized the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean cargo boat travelling from Cuba to the Panama Canal. The Panamanian forces claimed to have been tipped off about a drugs cargo. On board, however, were 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar and 240 metric tons of ‘obsolete defensive armaments’, according to the Cubans’ own statement.
The seizure was greeted with condemnation and sensationalist media headlines about violations of UN sanctions on arms sales to North Korea. The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a public statement listing the contents of the shipment as: two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled rockets, two MiG-21 aircrafts and 15 MiG engines – ‘all manufactured in the mid-90s – to be repaired and returned to our country’. The statement asserted Cuba’s need to ‘maintain our defence capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty’, and the country’s ‘firm and irrevocable commitment to peace, disarmament – including nuclear disarmament – and respect for international law’. The cruel, punitive US blockade of Cuba has been robustly denounced in the UN General Assembly for two decades and yet nothing is done to lift it – so there is little reason for Cuba to adhere to sanctions against North Korea in any case.
The Panamanian government toned down its denunciations once it was clear that no drugs were on board and that Cuba’s Soviet-era weaponry had nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear programme. The ship’s crew remain in Panamanian detention, however, while Panama invites a UN mission to verify whether sanctions on Korea were broken. The team is likely to include representatives from the US and Britain – the biggest hypocrites on the issue of the production and export of armaments. Britain’s Ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant said ‘any weapons transfers, for whatever reason, to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime’. At the same time it was revealed that Britain had approved 3,000 export licences for small arms, crypto-graphic material and other military supplies to a long list of countries where there are, says a British parliamentary committee report, ‘concerns about their human rights record’. These include Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, as well as countries such as Iran and China, that put Britain in breach of UN sanctions. However, the committee is seeking assurances that these supplies will not be used for ‘internal repression’. That’s all right, then.