North Korea Gets the World in a Panic, Even Without Trying

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Arnulfo Franco / AP

A police officer stands guard as investigation officers look inside a recently opened container holding military equipment aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama. Wednesday, July 17, 2013.

The cargo of weaponry seized by Panamanian officials en route from Cuba to North Korea has caused an international uproar, but revealed nothing new about the East Asian pariah. Cuba’s foreign ministry has dismissed international concerns, describing the haul as 240 tons of “obsolete defensive weapons” requiring repair. Observers have speculated that the 10,000 tons of brown sugar used to conceal the illicit consignment was payment for this service, and U.N. inspectors have been summoned to Central America to mediate the affair. Even if the explanation were as benign as that now proffered, Havana could face possible censure for contravention of a U.N. arms embargo that requires a waiver before any such dealings with Pyongyang. For North Korea, however, it will be a return to business as usual.

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North Korea knows how to make the world jittery. Pyongyang has helped nations like Iran and Pakistan develop a nuclear capability, and fired missiles over staunch U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. In 2010, it torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, and shelled a South Korean island, claiming the lives of two soldiers and injuring 18 people. Earlier this year another nuclear device was tested, and a North Korean general declared the army was “one click” from launching an atomic weapon. Any hopes that Kim Jong Un would take a more moderate line than his father, Kim Jong Il, have quickly dissipated.

Nevertheless, this latest incident does not appear as the sort of bellicose publicity stunt that characterizes the Swiss-schooled 30-year-old “Supreme Leader.” The North Korean captain of the 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang detained at the entrance of the Panama Canal last week was clearly agitated as marines boarded his ship. He attacked the soldiers, appeared to suffer a heart attack and attempting to slit his own throat with a knife. The vessel’s 35 detained crewmembers are to be charged with crimes against Panama’s internal security, according to local officials. Analysts at IHS Jane, a defense intelligence firm, identified the equipment as an engagement radar system for the SA-2 family of surface-to-air missiles — technology debuted back in the Vietnam War.

The Panamanian authorities have been milking the incident for all its worth, with President Ricardo Martinelli even posting a photo of the suspect equipment to his Twitter page. “They must be missiles, missile launchers, et cetera, something like that,” Panama’s Security Minister José Raul Mulino told Radio Panama, before conceding, “I’m no weapons expert.” Havana has specified that the inventory contained two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.

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In Washington, a State Department spokesman expressed support for Panama’s handing of the affair and vowed “to get to the bottom of the facts of this case.” A Florida Congresswoman has called on President Barack Obama to cancel nascent talks with Cuba, a bitter rival of Washington for decades, where the suspicious cargo originated. David Kang, an expert on North Korea at the University of Southern California, tells TIME that the incident simply confirms that Pyongyang is “deeply involved in smuggling many illicit things.” In turn, North Korea’s state-run Central News Agency quoted a foreign ministry official claiming that the cargo was being overhauled as part of a “legitimate contract” and urged for its immediate release.

While nothing will likely come the current fracas, experts say it demonstrates the bifurcated nature of the North Korean arms trade, which is in truth more mundane than the apocalyptic billing it often generates. Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University, draws a line between the high-stakes trade in nuclear technology and exchange of aging Soviet weaponry favored by guerilla groups and narco-terrorists the world over. “I would expect that this incident would be forgotten in 10 days,” says Lankov. For the past 30 years, he has watched North Korea’s relations seesaw from crisis to detente and back again, and beneath the commotion he detects a familiar pattern. He points to 1994, when North Korea threatened to withdraw from a nuclear non-proliferation agreement and engulf Seoul in “a sea of fire.” Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter rushed to the region to re-start talks, offering the regime half a million tons of oil, two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors free of charge and large-scale shipments of food aid.

This bounty, Lankov argues, is the true objective of the game that North Korea plays with the world, and it’s not as high-stakes as one might think. “They don’t have paranoid ideas about changing the world,” says Lankov. “Their major concern is their own political and physical survival.” Crippled by sanctions and stunted by a dysfunctional economy, the regime turns to a meager arms trade as one of its last remaining sources of revenue. And if it can rattle a few sabers along the way, so much the better.

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