North Korean Freighter Seized With Cuban Weapon Systems on Board

The news that a North Korean freighter allegedly stuffed with “sophisticated missile equipment” has been intercepted crossing the Panama Canal from Cuba must have many people talking, scratching their heads, and perhaps even flashing back to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Is history repeating itself?  Or is this just a bizarre (badly-executed?) example of Cuba’s knack for extending the life of hold-overs from a bygone era? Are these the military equivalent of Cuba’s famous maquinas, the mid-century American classic cars seemingly impossibly rumbling through the streets of Cuban cities more than half a century later, not out of novelty but necessity?

Let’s start with the fact that there’s plenty we don’t know yet. The Cuban Foreign Ministry has released a statement admitting to the weaponry on board the vessel, and explained the following:

'[T]he vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of obsolete defensive weapons - two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG 21-Bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.

The Cuban statement said they were all made in the mid-20th Century and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty."

The statement also reaffirmed Cuba’s commitment to "peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law".'

Even though we now have an inventory provided by the Cubans, we still have more questions than answers. Let’s say the 10,000 tons of sugar that was laying conveniently on top of all of this equipment was actually payment for the anticipated repairs to take place in North Korea (because, after all, who else relies on 1950’s era weaponry?), as one analyst has already speculated. If Cuba were within its rights to upgrade the equipment, why was the equipment undeclared at the Canal crossing? Do international restrictions on missile shipments apply even if they aren't intended for North Korea? Was there nowhere else to ship the weapons for upgrades – like, perhaps, Russia? And does Cuba need weapons defense systems in place so badly that it doesn’t matter than these are more than half a century old?

If Raul Castro wasn’t interested in antagonizing the United States by taking in Edward Snowden, why ship arms – Cuba’s or not – to or through North Korea? Surely the Cubans understand the U.S. sensitivities around North Korea, whether they agree with them or not.