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UN experts: Seized MiG engines, weapons bound for North Korea violated embargo

MIAMI — A shipment of Cuban weapons to North Korea last summer violated the U.N. arms embargo on the Asian nation and showed a “comprehensive planned strategy to conceal” the cargo, a panel of U.N. experts has reportedly concluded.

Japan’s Kyodo News International agency reported that the secret report submitted by the experts to the U.N. Security Council committee that supervises sanctions on North Korea states that the shipment constituted “sanctions violations.”

The report noted that North Korea used companies in China and Singapore to handle the shipment and that the freighter had turned off its locator beacon and never logged its docking at the Cuban port where it loaded the weapons, according to Kyodo.

There was a “comprehensive planned strategy to conceal the existence and nature of the cargo” bound for North Korea, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the news agency added, quoting from the experts’ report. “The employment of so many role players in support of the trip suggests a network of entities centrally managed working together to deflect scrutiny in order to evade sanctions by minimizing the DPRK’s visibility in transactions,” they reportedly wrote.

Panama authorities discovered the weapons, including two antiaircraft missile batteries, and 16 engines for MiG warplanes, hidden under 10,000 tons of brown Cuban sugar when they seized the North Korean-registered Chong Chon Gang freighter.

Kyodo said its journalists read the 59-page report, which covers the experts’ work for the past year but includes a large section on the Cuba case. It was privately submitted earlier this month to the Security Council committee that oversees sanctions slapped on North Korea since 2006 for its nuclear weapons programs.

Martin Uden, a former British ambassador to South Korea who heads the panel of experts, could not be reached for comment. Havana and Pyongyang have made no public comments on the case since July.

The Security Council will not slap sanctions on Cuba, said Michael Madden, editor of the Web page North Korean Leadership Watch, but the case might complicate efforts to warm up Cuba’s relations with the U.S.

“These findings reaffirm the dangerous nexus between Cuba and other rogue regimes worldwide and remind us why Cuba is designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged last summer that the 508-foot Chong Chon Gang carried 240 tons of “obsolete defensive weapons” that were to have been repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba as part of a commercial deal.

“The Cubans may have thought they were operating in the gray area of the sanctions” against North Korea, said Madden. The arms embargo prohibits the “transfer” of weapons and other military materials.

The experts reported that the ship docked in Havana June 4-9 to unload cargo for Cuba, then stood off the northern coast until June 20, when it docked in the port of Mariel and took on the weapons, Kyodo said. It left June 22 for Puerto Padre on the northeastern coast, where it loaded the sugar, and left Cuban waters July 5 for North Korea.

Among the attempts at “concealment and disguise” was the turning off of the freighter’s automatic location system and the ship log’s omission of the port of call in Mariel, according to the news report. The weapons were not listed in the cargo manifest.

Panama authorities intercepted the ship a few days later as it prepared to cross the Panama Canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific, saying they had a tip of illegal drugs aboard. Instead, they found the undeclared weapons in 25 metal shipping containers.

The weapons and sugar remain in Panama, and Cuba has not asked for their return, Panama officials say. The ship and its 32 crewmen, detained for months, are now free and were expected to sail Thursday for Havana, to ready the freighter for its trip home.

The sugar was listed as being shipped by Cubazucar, a government agency, to the Korean Central Marketing and Trading Corp., a state enterprise in North Korea, Kyodo reported.

The Cuba case gave the U.N. experts and sanctions panel members an “unrivaled insight” into North Korea’s “increasing use of multiple and tiered circumvention techniques” to get around sanctions, it noted.

Kyodo said the experts also reported they were looking into whether former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who visited North Korea twice last year, violated the U.N. ban on luxury goods imports to the North. He apparently took a Mulberry handbag, vodka and Irish whiskey to ruler Kim Jung Un, Kyodo reported.

The panel of experts is made up of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France, as well as Japan, South Korea and South Africa.

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