In light of the seizure by Panama of a North Korean-flagged ship that had set sail from Cuba in July carrying military cargo and what appears as ballistic missiles, we are reproducing a report we published in 2004 highlighting the growing military cooperation between Cuba and North Korea. Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said that the institute earlier this year reported to the U.N. a discovery it made of a suspicious flight from Cuba to North Korea that travelled via central Africa.
In the 2004 ICCAS report, we urged U.S. policy makers to focus on the Cuban-North Korean link.
Focus on Cuba, Issue 61
December 20, 2004
The Cuban-North Korean Connection
The recent, unprecedented mobilization of the Cuban military has little to do with an imminent U.S. invasion. The reason the Castro regime is spending an estimated US$1.2 billion a year of Cuba’s scarce resources on its armed forces (1) has to do with reasserting the dominant institutional role of the military in Cuba’s totalitarian society, instilling anti-American sentiments in the Cuban people, and assuring an orderly succession after Fidel Castro’s death under the martial rule of Defense Minister Raúl Castro.
However, what may be of genuine concern for Cuba’s neighbors is Castro’s new campaign to upgrade his armed forces’ capabilities and reach. With the Cuban military involved in virtually every sector of the Cuban economy and managing the island’s lucrative US$2 billion a year tourism industry (2), Defense Minister Raúl Castro certainly has the means at his disposal to pursue his big brother’s rearmament ambitions.
That Cuba is seeking to rearm has not been kept a state secret. In September, Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frías, head of Cuba’s Western Army and directly responsible for protecting the senior leadership in Havana, journeyed to Beijing to confer with Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan. On the top of the Cuban general’s agenda was “further cooperation between the Chinese and Cuban armies under the fast-changing international situation.” More to the point, Cintra Frías laid on the table the Cuban military’s “needs” to “[modernize]…as soon as possible.” (3)
With the island’s tourism earnings in the hands of Cuba’s Defense Ministry and Havana’s urgency to rearm, the question remains, what is Castro seeking to acquire? Beyond spare parts to keep a few dozen operational MiG jets flying and aging tanks and armed vehicles running (4), one disturbing possibility arises from the findings of U.S. inspectors during their search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. In October 2003, Dr. David Kay, then leading the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s WMD investigations in Iraq, disclosed on the ABC News program This Week that his team had found evidence of “North Korean missiles going to Cuba.”(5)
Although it may seem irrational for the Cuban government to incite a crisis with Washington by importing North Korean Scuds capable of hitting targets within the continental United States (6), the precedent of the October 1962 missile crisis — when Castro beseeched Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to use the island as a launch pad for a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S. (7) — cannot be forgotten. Moreover, neither Kim Jong Il nor Fidel Castro is averse to the politics of brinkmanship.
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