If it was a chess move, there would be two question marks after it, the annotation for “blunder.”
There seems little doubt that Cuba’s shipment of anti-aircraft systems, or elements of them, plus two MiG-21 fighters, violates a United Nations Security Council resolution against sending arms to North Korea.
That’s a political black eye that Cuba would surely rather avoid.
So why choose North Korea to repair the equipment? Perhaps, among the few places that do that work, Pyongyang offered the best deal, such as a brown sugar barter arrangement. Why would Cuba entrust a North Korean freighter crew to smuggle the goods, somewhat carelessly in light of the political and diplomatic risk? I doubt we’ll ever know.
Cuba asserts, and no one questions, its right to self-defense. Refurbished planes and anti-aircraft systems are part of that.
As for the military impact of this materiel, it is negligible to zero.
If it were repaired, retained, and deployed by the North Koreans, it would not change the correlation of forces on the Korean peninsula.
If it were repaired and returned to Cuba, its deployment would not threaten the United States. A boost in radar and anti-aircraft missile capability would serve Cuba’s defense capability, and that plus two refurbished MiGs would enhance Cuba’s ability to monitor its airspace and territorial waters.
These systems would not affect a modern adversary as they are several generations old, first produced in the 1950’s. (Google “MiG-21,” and you find a story about an Indian Air Force pilot who is suing his government, alleging that to fly that plane violates his “fundamental right to life.”)
And they have nothing to do with the international community’s concern about North Korea, which has to do with the development of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
But legally speaking, none of that matters in that the mere sending of those kinds of arms seems to constitute a clear violation of the UN resolution regarding North Korea.
If Cuba were developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the United States might be treating Cuba as it did North Korea during the previous Administration – dialogue, visits by high-level State Department envoys, a respectful letter from President Bush to the Dear Leader in 2007, removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and an offer of full diplomatic relations (with no political conditions attached) upon abandonment of nuclear weapons programs (see here, here, and here).
The Obama Administration seems to be waiting for the evidence fully to come in before it confronts Cuba with it. The ship search will take a week or so as Panamanians hand-carry all the bags of brown sugar out of the hull, the North Korean sailors having disabled the winches that would have made the job easy.
Whether the UN takes up the matter, and what it would mean for Cuba, is anyone’s guess.
For now, Calle Ocho is enjoying an opportunity to revive the Cuban Military Threat. It is also in the process of falling in love with the United Nations and international law, something we never see when the General Assembly condemns the U.S. embargo nearly unanimously, year after year.