Cuba’s admission that it was secretly sending ageing weapons systems to North Korea turned the global spotlight on a little-known link in a secretive network of rusting freighters and charter jets that moves weapons to and from North Korea, defying United Nations sanctions.

The revelation that Cuba was shipping the arms, purportedly to be repaired and returned, is certain to jeopardise slowly-warming ties between Washington and Havana, although the extent of the damage remains uncertain.

Experts said Cuba’s participation in the clandestine arms network was a puzzling move that promised little military pay-off for the risk of incurring UN penalties and endangering detente with America.

The ageing armaments, including radar system parts, missiles, and even two jet fighters, were discovered on Monday buried beneath thousands of tons of raw Cuban brown sugar piled on to a North Korean freighter that was seized by Panama as it headed for home through the Panama Canal.

North Korea is barred by the UN from buying or selling arms, missiles or components, but for years UN and independent arms monitors have discovered North Korean weaponry headed to Iran, Syria and a host of nations in Africa and Asia.

The UN says North Korea has also repeatedly tried to import banned arms and, analysts say, it maintains a thriving sideline in repairing ageing Warsaw Pact gear, often in exchange for badly-needed commodities, such as Burmese rice.

“They don’t know how to grow rice, but they know how to repair radars,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private group.

“The North Koreans are taking desperate measures to pursue that work. Despite the best efforts of the international community to cut off arms transfers to and from North Korea, it will continue in some form.”

The surprise for many observers was that the latest shipment of arms headed to North Korea comes from Cuba, which acknowledged yesterday that it was shipping two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles, two Mig-21 fighter jets and 15 jet engine, saying they were headed to North Korea to be repaired there.

The discovery aboard the freighter Chong Chon Gang was expected to trigger an investigation by the UN Security Council committee that monitors the sanctions against North Korea and Panamanian officials said UN investigators were expected in Panama today.

Britain’s UN ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant said “any weapons transfers, for whatever reason, to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime”.

If Cuba wanted to send the weapons for repairs and have them returned, it would have needed to obtain a waiver from the security council committee monitoring the North Korea sanctions.

A spokesman for Luxembourg’s UN Mission, which chairs the North Korea sanctions committee, said there had been no such request from Cuba.

Democrat Robert Menendez, the Cuban-American chairman of America’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the incident “almost certainly violated” UN sanctions and urged the Obama administration to bring it to the security council for review.

“Weapons transfers from one communist regime to another hidden under sacks of sugar are not accidental occurrences,” Mr Menendez said, adding that it “reinforces the necessity that Cuba remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor state terrorism”.

Panama’s seizure of the freighter, which saw its North Korean captain try to commit suicide and 35 crewmen arrested after resisting police efforts to intercept the ship in Panamanian waters, was badly timed for officials working on baby steps toward a limited detente between the US and Cuba.

High-ranking Cubans were in Washington yesterday for migration talks that are supposed to be held every six months but have been on ice since January 2011, as the nations remain at odds on issues like Cuba’s imprisonment of US government sub-contractor Alan Gross.

“I don’t think you can sugar-coat this,” said Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“You have a suspicious cargo of weapons going to a heavily sanctioned state, and this is bad for US-Cuba relations. The timing, the same week as the restart of long-postponed migration talks, couldn’t be worse.”

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington had told Cuban officials that it would discuss the seized ship with them soon, but that it would not be a focus of the one-day migration talks.

Panamanian officials said yesterday that the ship’s crew was the subject of a criminal investigation that could lead to charges, adding that two North Korean diplomats based in Havana had been issued visas to travel to Panama to talk with authorities about the case.

Panama said it might take a week to search the ship. So far only two of its five container sections have been examined.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Panama should release the crew because no drugs or illegal cargo were aboard, reiterating Cuba’s explanation that, “this cargo is nothing but ageing weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract”.

Experts said the equipment found aboard the North Korean vessel did not pose a military threat to the United States or its allies.

Like other aspects of Cuba’s economy and infrastructure since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island’s armed forces rely greatly on old technology that requires frequent maintenance and parts that are difficult to obtain.

North Korea has a robust capability to repair and upgrade such Soviet-era military equipment, and a track record of doing that in exchange for commodities such as sugar. Soviet-built air-defence missiles, radar systems and MiG-21 fighter jets are complex enough to periodically require a factory repair in addition to regular maintenance.

North Korea is also known to be seeking to evade sanctions and get spare parts for its own weapons systems, particularly Mig jet fighters. That raises the possibility that in lieu of cash, Cuba was paying for the repairs with a mix of sugar and jet equipment, experts said.

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