The Cuban-North Korean Connection

New evidence of North Korea/Cuba military cooperation should be of huge concern to the US.

From the Cuba Transition Project
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
University of Miami

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 traveled 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 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 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 , 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.”

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, 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.”

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, 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.  — cannot be forgotten. Moreover, neither Kim Jong Il nor Fidel Castro is averse to the politics of brinkmanship.

Recent visits to Cuba by high-ranking emissaries of Kim Jong Il should be enough to warrant a further inquiry into Kay’s remarks. In June, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Choi Su Hon, traveled to Havana to “strengthen bilateral relations.” As reported by Cuba’s state-run press, the North Korean minister arrived in the island with instructions from Kim Jong Il to “develop mutual ties in various spheres.”And in late November, Vice Marshal Kim Yong Chun, chief of staff of the Korean People’s Army, led a delegation of senior generals that spent five days evaluating Cuba’s military infrastructure. While the weather in November may be more agreeable in Havana than Pyongyang, it is doubtful that the North Korean delegation was on vacation. In addition to meeting with Defense Minister Raúl Castro and the heads of all branches of Cuba’s military establishment, Vice Marshal Kim Yong Chun and his staff toured manufacturing and assembly facilities of the Unión de Industrias Militares, the island’s defense industry conglomerate.

Culminating his visit, Vice Marshal Kim met with Fidel Castro to discuss “the international situation, the relationship between the DPRK [North Korea] and Cuba, and Cuba’s steps to cope with the U.S. blockade [i.e., embargo].” After indulging in anti-American rhetoric, the North Korean delegation and their Cuban hosts also conducted more serious business. With “consensus on all the issues,” Castro’s and Kim Jong Il’s armed forces “exchanged views on strengthening cooperation in military fields” and declared that “the Cuban army and people will fight shoulder to shoulder with the Korean army and people in [an] anti-US joint front.”

Vice Marshal Kim Yong Chun’s stay in the island also coincided with the visit of China’s president Hu Jintao to Cuba. (11) Hu extended an economic lifeline to Castro’s regime with the commitment of as much as US$1.5 billion in Chinese government-backed investments to exploit Cuba’s strategic nickel and cobalt ores.(12) It is doubtful that the presence of Chinese and North Korean leaders in Havana was due to a scheduling coincidence. Are the Chinese and North Koreans cooperating to support the Cuban military?

Given Pyongyang’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the missile technology to put them within reach of the United States, it is disconcerting that Kay’s suggestion of an arms trade between North Korea and Cuba — and perhaps involving China — has been largely ignored. Particularly worrisome is the apparent failure of policymakers in Washington to demand further inquiries in order to either substantiate or debunk such an alarming assertion. If Iraqi documents or other evidence encountered by American inspectors were to indeed reveal that Cuba has acquired, or is looking to acquire, ballistic missiles from North Korea, the geopolitical challenges and security threats facing the United States may be even greater, and closer to home, than heretofore thought.


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