In July 2013, a North Korean vessel, the Chong Chon Gang, was intercepted by the Panamanian authorities, as it attempted to cross the Canal carrying 240 tons of illegal weapons acquired from Cuba's regime.
According to the United Nations' Panel of Experts ("POE"), which subsequently investigated the incident and issued its findings in a March 2014 report: "This constituted the largest amount of arms and related materiel interdicted to or from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea since the adoption of [U.N. Security Council] resolution 1718 (2006)."
It was the first time in recent history that a nation in the Western Hemisphere — namely Cuba — was implicated and found guilty of violating international sanctions.
Yet, earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council announced punitive measures only against the North Korean operator of the Chong Chon Gang vessel, Ocean Maritime Management Company, Ltd.
The fact that the U.N. Security Council allowed Cuba to get away unscathed is concerning. However, it's not surprising, considering the presence of the Cuban regime's allies, China and Russia, on the Council.
However, the following day, the Obama administration would follow suit.
It announced its own set of sanctions against Ocean Maritime Management Company, Ltd., and took an additional step by also blacklisting the Chong Chon Gang Shipping Company, the North Korean owner of the vessel.
But just like the U.N. Security Council — it gave Cuba's regime a free pass.
Why not sanction the owners of the Cuban weapons that were being smuggled?
Or the Cuban port operators (Mariel) who colluded in the shipment?
Or the Cuban officials that made the deal with their North Korean counterparts?
Why is the administration unwilling to sanction the Cuban entities and officials involved in this illegal smuggling operation?
Some have speculated that further punitive measures were unnecessary due to already existing U.S. sanctions against Cuba. But the U.S. has long-standing, existing sanctions against North Korea as well.
Others believe Cuba got away scot-free due to its unwillingness to cooperate with the U.N.'s investigation. But that should be even more reason to hold it accountable.
Perhaps the administration is concerned that Raul Castro's son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, was allegedly involved.
This may disrupt its current (and thus far, fruitless) diplomatic engagement with Castro's regime.
Moreover, it may upset European companies, which to do business in Cuba must go through the GAESA military conglomerate (run by General Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas).
This may also be the case with Cuba's Minister of Defense (MINFAR), General Leopoldo Cintas Frias, who hosted a visiting delegation of senior North Korean military officials shortly before the weapons shipment.
Unfortunately, General Pedro Mendiondo, head of the Cuban Air Force and Air Defense Systems, is no longer an option, as he was mysteriously killed in a car accident (without an entourage) a few weeks after the shipment was intercepted.
Such impunity is particularly irresponsible considering the POE's investigation and conclusions, which are a detailed indictment of Cuba's role in the illegal smuggling operation; its coordination with North Korean officials; and its subsequent attempts to lie and cover it up.
Even U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power recently recognized:
"This was a cynical, outrageous, and illegal attempt by Cuba and North Korea to circumvent United Nations sanctions prohibiting the export of weapons to North Korea . . . Irrefutable facts clearly prove Cuba and the DPRK's intentions to violate sanctions by employing highly sophisticated deception and obfuscation techniques."
Consider some of the POE's conclusions:
- The panel concluded in its incident report submitted to the committee that both the shipment itself and the transaction between Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea were sanctions violations.
- The panel found that the hidden cargo amounted to six trailers associated with surface-to-air missile systems and 25 shipping containers loaded with two disassembled MiG-21 aircraft, 15 engines for MiG-21 aircraft, components for surface-to-air missile systems, ammunition and miscellaneous arms-related materiel.
- On 20 June, the ship docked in the port of Mariel [Cuba], where it took onboard the arms and related materiel.
- The incident involving the Chong Chon Gang revealed a comprehensive, planned strategy to conceal the existence and nature of the cargo.
- [The panel] notes that the voyage of another Democratic People's Republic of Korea-flagged and -owned vessel to Cuba presents a very similar pattern to the recent voyage of the Chong Chon Gang.
And yet, the Cuban regime will suffer no consequences for this egregious violation of international sanctions. Just think of the dangerous message that sends.
It should be of no surprise that other North Korean vessels continue making similar trips to Cuba, while turning off their transponders (in violation of international norms) to avoid detection.
Just last month, another North Korean vessel, the Mu Du Bong, took the same route as the Chong Chon Gang in Cuba and turned off its transponder for nearly 10 days.
Could the Castro and Kim regimes be so brazen?
Why not? They've gotten away with it before.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Cuba. In an independent capacity, Mauricio is a co-founder and director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, the largest Hispanic political committee in history. He has served as an attorney-adviser for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Claver-Carone’s work has been featured in a variety of publications including, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and The Hill. Claver-Carone is also the editor of the blog Capitol Hill Cubans. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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