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Intercepted Ship Highlights North Korea-Cuba Relations


On Tuesday, Panamanian officials announced they had intercepted a North Korean ship laden with a suspicious cargo of Cuban sugar. Drug enforcement agents, acting on a tip, boarded the ship in the Panama Canal last week and found hidden below the sugar not drugs but missile parts and disassembled fighter planes. When pressed, Cuban authorities said the ship was carrying obsolete defensive weapons to North Korea for repair. Joining us now to fill us in on the history of Cuba's relationship with North Korea is Dr. Frank Mora. Until very recently, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense. He is now director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. Thank you for joining us.

DR. FRANK MORA: Great to be here, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when did North Korea and Cuba first develop a relationship?

MORA: It was the 1960s, not long after Fidel Castro declared Cuba being a Marxist-Lenin state, which was in December. And not long after that, the Cuban revolution decided to side with the Soviet Union rather than the Chinese in the Russian-Sino split that had occurred in the '60s. And, of course, North Korea had become a client of the Soviet Union, particularly after the Korean War. And Cuba had gravitated toward the direction. So, there was an immediate connection but it was not much more than a diplomatic-political-ideological relations rather than economic relationship.

WERTHEIMER: So, they have a philosophy in common that more than that now what did they do for each other?

MORA: Well, over the course of the last 50 years, what they really developed was a mutual defense agreement. The relationship didn't really bear much fruit for either party in the economic or social realm.

WERTHEIMER: The relationship still feels kind of under the radar to me. Do you think it is?

MORA: Well, it's certainly under the radar because there's nothing really substantive - or at least we thought there was nothing really substantive. Now, the Cubans had to know that this shipment of equipment are, or could be, in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, which is surprising to me in many ways that Cuba would risk garnering the attention of the United Nations for what it seemed like very little gain for them in trying to so-called repair of these obsolete military equipment.

WERTHEIMER: And you buy that explanation that the missile parts were in fact obsolete and were being shipped to North Korea for repairs?

MORA: Frankly, I and many of us are a bit dumbfounded as to this whole situation. The Cubans could have very easily asked the Ukrainians, the Russians, the Belarusians to do exactly the kind of repair that apparently the North Koreans were going to do.

WERTHEIMER: You do think it's a violation of the United Nations sanctions.

MORA: It does seem to me. The more we see, for example, the fighter aircraft, the MiG, it's clearly a violation.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think is really going on here? Is there more to this than what we've seen?

MORA: There could be. You know, they're still searching the ship and all the containers. As you know, initially, the intelligence that the Panamanian government received was that the ship was carrying drugs. And so, if in fact, they continue searching and they find drugs in the ship, people will make an immediate connection that the Cubans were involved in illicit trafficking. And that could be a real game-changer, particular as it relates to relations to the United States and even relationships with the rest of Latin America.

WERTHEIMER: Frank Mora. He is the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. Thank you very much for taking so much time with us.

MORA: Thank you so much, Linda.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.