Steph Hagard wrote a great little piece on the Chong Chon Gang interdiction.  I have only a few additional comments.

1. I find the story that Cuba was sending the equipment to North Korea for refurbishment plausible.  In fact, it resolves a minor mystery.  In 2006, the Cuban’s revealed new mobile launchers for the S-75 and S-125,  leading many to people to ask which country performed the upgrade.

Two new mobile versions of the Soviet-era S-75 (SA-2 ‘Guideline’) and S-125 (SA-3 ‘Goa’) have been unveiled by Cuba, writes Grzegorz Holdanowicz. Both were displayed during the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the creation of Communist Cuba’s air force and air defence (Defensa Antiaerea y Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria – DAAFAR), on 18 April 2006 in the ‘Playa Giron’ Guard Air Brigade (Brigada de Aviacion de la Guardia Playa Giron) at San Antonio de los Banos.

Launchers for both systems have been installed on the chassis of the T-54/55 main battle tank family. Since only the launchers were paraded, it is unclear whether a similar scheme has created mobile versions of the radar and command posts. DAAFAR is thought to have 12-13 battalions of S-75 and S-125 systems.

The mobile launcher of the S-125 system externally resembles the Polish W-125SC launcher of the S-125SC Newa-SC system (see JMR December 2005, p9). However, Polish authorities and companies engaged in development and production of Newa-SC have categorically denied any links with Cuban programme. (“Cuba reveals mobile S-75, S-125 launchers,” Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, 13 June 2006)

Carlo Kopp has already noted differences between the Polish upgrade and what we saw in Cuba. I think we have to seriously consider the possibility that North Korea is handing the upgrade program for Cuba’s air defenses. (Although the North Koreans parade their own S-75 and S-125s on rather more quotidian vehicles.)

2. I also suspect Cuba was paying for upgrade with the sugar, which has a market value on the order of a few million dollars.  There are at least two advantages for North Korea in taking barter as payment. Sugar and other goods bartered may not run afoul of the financial restrictions imposed in the sanctions.  Moreover, it is politically more difficult for the United States and its allies to seize foodstuffs headed to starving North Korea. And the Cubans were probably delighted to pay in sugar.  And the North Koreans can meet the annual candy ration.

3.  Finally, the Panamanians say they have invited the UN Panel of Experts to examine the cargo.  This is a successful implementation of sanctions, but it is a special case. Panama has a President who likes to pose with interdicted drug shipments, which was the basis for stopping this ship.  The fact that it was laden with weapons was just bad luck for the North Koreans and Cubans. Well, luck may or may not have anything to do with it.  It was unfortunate for the North Koreans and Cubans at any rate.  Sanctions implementation remains still poor for a number of reasons, one of which is that the United States and its allies have not created incentives to make states as eager to enforce sanctions on Iran and North Korea as they might be to interdict drug shipments.

In particular, I draw your attention to the saga of the M/V Monchegorsk, a Russian-owned, Cypriot flagged-ship that the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines chartered the Monchegorsk to carry a shipment of small arms to Syria in violation of UNSCR 1747.

The US interdicted the shipment at sea in  January 2009, forcing it to return to Cyprus. The Cypriots had a real problem — the could not return the goods to Iran or allow them to continue to Syria without drawing the ire of the international community.  But Cyprus also faced retaliation from Iran and especially Syria, which responded to a previous interdiction by opening ferry service to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. But the United Nations would not take the arms either. The British and Germans were willing to take the cargo, but the Cypriots were worried about the legality of the seizure.  They needed the political cover of a United Nations solutions, as well as technical assistance in handling the dangerous cargo.  Ultimately, the cargo sat in Cyprus, stored improperly, for more than two years until it exploded in July 2011 killing a dozen people, including the commander of the Cypriot Navy, and destroying the main power station for the island.

You can pretty much kiss any further Cypriot enforcement of sanctions good-bye now. As I noted following the explosion,”the Security Council, in elaborating on the obligations outlined in UNSCR 1540, [should] enjoin states seizing illicit goods to forfeit their  possession to a designated United Nations entity, which in turn would arrange for disposal. There are a variety of options that might work, from supervised destruction under UNMOVIC to a model of delegated disposal under the sanctions committees.”

We have another chance to do this correctly.  Let’s not make Panama regret looking beneath those sacks of sugar.