Coming Soon: The Strange Case of the Chong Chon Gang



This is a bizarre story that challenges any logical explanation. Any? Well, not exactly. We are inclined to believe that our personal sense of risk and rewards is shared by everyone. We are wrong. Totalitarian and fascist leaders have their own logic for approaching reality.

Friends and foes of the Cuban government were recently puzzled when it tried to pass a cargo of undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal. To make things worse, the cargo was found in a North Korean ship with a previous record of criminal activities. “What were they thinking?” said a colleague who believes that General Raul Castro is a reformist, interested in fostering détente with the United States. “This is very strange” a well known dissident confided to me. “They are very good at covert action, and this one was as clumsy as it could get. Were they actually doing their best to get caught?” Well, for whatever reason, they certainly did.

But such speculations should be irrelevant for the current members of the Security Council of the United Nations when the reports of the panel of experts and the subsequent recommendations of the Committee on Sanctions on North Korea are finally released. The Council should mostly address two key issues. First, do the type of weapons included in the cargo fit the list of the current arms embargo? Secondly, was this an operation to transfer weapons to North Korea or part of a more complex scheme for selling all or part of the weaponry in the international black market to other rogue states and/or irregular and terrorists groups? The unexplained presence of light rocket launchers (RPG-7) and live munitions in some containers seem to suggest that possibility.

Havana should now explain what is the nature and extension of its military cooperation with the Democratic People Republic of Korea (DPRK). Such collaboration was publicly reaffirmed last July in Havana by Raul Castro and a delegation led by General Kim Kyok Syk, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Army of DPRK. Incidentally, their “fraternal” meeting took place while the Chong Chon Gang was being loaded at a Cuban port by the Cuban army.

Most important: Havana should clarify if future military collaboration with North Korea includes the development of weapons of mass destruction—either nuclear, biological or chemical—in what would represent an outstanding breach of all Security Council resolutions on North Korea and in clear defiance of the international community.

The Cuban government also should reveal the destination of the rocket launchers (RPG-7) and live munitions included in the cargo. Their presence has raised many new questions beyond those related to the other heavier weapons in an officially DPRK-owned ship.

Havana should also unveil the current role of the prominent Cuban military industrial complex known as GAESA in these types of covert operations designed to outmaneuver the United Nations’ monitoring mechanisms. If GAESA is clearly part of these activities, as seems to be the case, and sanctions are demanded against that corporation by the UN Security Council, would Raul Castro be ready to apply harsh sentences on its CEO, his son in law, as Fidel did in 1989 when he used General Arnaldo Ochoa as a scapegoat and had him shot?

As I said before, the logic of totalitarian leaders is not like ours. The only language they truly understand is that of smart, effective sanctions that are aimed directly at them, their relatives, and their pockets, not at the general population.

The Security Council should not hesitate to follow all clues present in this episode. A clear and loud message should be sent to the Cuban and Korean dictators that their provocative actions will invite serious consequences from which not even their closest allies will be able to protect them.

[Cross-posted at the Interamerican Institute for Democracy]

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