MARK COLVIN: The US vice-president, Joe Biden, has thanked Panama for detecting a shipment of Cuban arms bound for the secretive nation of North Korea. Panamanian authorities seized a North Korean ship in July after they found tonnes of military hardware, including two MiG fighter jets, hidden in a cargo of sugar.
There’s a UN arms embargo against North Korea. The discovery sheds more light on the barter trade between North Korea and Cuba and the state of their defences. Brendan Trembath reports.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: On a visit to Panama, the US vice-president, Joe Biden, has thanked the thousands of workers expanding the Panama Canal.
JOE BIDEN: And I look forward to this relationship continuing to grow and prosper. And as a consequence of what you’ve done at the canal, we have the possibility of expanding our economy by hundreds of billions of dollars over the near term.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: If they finish on time, large freighters will be able to navigate the waterway from 2015. The US vice-president has also acknowledged a less desirable type of trade through the Panama Canal. He’s thanked Panamanian authorities for the seizure in July of a North Korean-flagged ship packed with Cuban military hardware.
Both the Cuban and North Korean governments have said the arms were obsolete and being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment. But the Communist allies did not explain why two MiG fighters were buried under more than 200,000 sacks of sugar.
Dr Leonid Petrov is a Korean studies researcher at the Australian National University.
LEONID PETROV: And I believe that it’s happened because North Korea simply feels they are cornered, they are being watched. They are paranoid, and they’re trying to disguise any possible activity with the outer world.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: Can you read into the types of aircraft seized? Does it suggest anything about the state of the North Korean military?
LEONID PETROV: The state of North Korean military is not particularly great. The lack of fuel, particularly, for aircraft keeps its air force in the under-trained state of condition. I believe that North Koreans need more training to be more efficient in operations in any branch of their military, depending whether it’s air force, naval or army.
They have a very huge fleet of submarines, probably largest in the world. But in terms of air force and particularly these MiG-15, MiG-17 and MiG-21 aircraft, they were used during the Korean War, 60 years ago. Of course, they have been already outmoded, outdated. They don’t pose any strategic threat but can pose a danger of a suicidal mission or it may be used as a delivery kind of vehicle for a small, compact nuclear device if needed.
BRENDAN TREMBATH: There are no signs North Korea is about to engage in talks on its nuclear program.
LEONID PETROV: The Six-Party Talks are dead and buried. I personally never believed in the Six-Party Talks, simply because there are too many parties in the Six-Party Talks process. And the main obstacle for the resumption of Six-Party Talks, well, regardless of how efficient they might be, I think that, and it’s pretty clear, that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo simply refuse to go back to the negotiating table.
MARK COLVIN: ANU academic and frequent visitor to North Korea, Dr Leonid Petrov, with Brendan Trembath.
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