Senators call on Obama to act over Cuban arms shipment to North Korea

Investigators look inside a recently opened container holding military equipment aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang in Colon City, Panama, Wednesday. Arnulfo Franco / AP

Leading Republican and Democrat senators called on President Barack Obama to act over a Cuban shipment of weapons and equipment to North Korea, as talks got under way about migration between the U.S. and Cuba.

A North Korean ship was stopped by Panama as it headed home with a cargo of rockets, missile parts and two Cold War-era fighter jets hidden among sacks of brown sugar.

United Nations sanctions ban the export of most military equipment to North Korea, though Havana said it was sending “obsolete” hardware to be repaired and then returned to Cuba.

Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the shipment was “a grave violation of international treaties.”

“Weapons transfers from one communist regime to another hidden under sacks of sugar are not accidental occurrences, and reinforces the necessity that Cuba remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor state terrorism,” he said.

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“In addition to possible violations of Panamanian law, the shipment almost certainly violated United Nations Security Council sanctions on shipments of weapons to North Korea and as such, I call on the Obama administration to submit this case to the U.N. Security Council for review,” he added.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who gave the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address this year and is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that the discovery of the shipment should “finally prompt the administration to re-calibrate its misguided and naïve Cuba policy.”

He said the U.S. should “immediately reverse its January 2011 decision easing restrictions on people-to-people travel and remittances sent to Cuba; as well as immediately halt granting visas to Cuban government officials.”

Rubio said Cuba’s actions were a “flagrant violation” of U.N. sanctions and “the latest reminder of the true nature of the Cuban regime.”

“I urge the Administration to take meaningful action to send a clear message that Cuban collusion with North Korea to undermine the international nonproliferation system carries heavy consequences,” he said.

Like Menendez, he also said the U.S. should raise the matter at the U.N. Security Council.

Both Rubio and Menendez are Cuban-Americans known as tough critics of Cuba's communist government.

Their comments, on Wednesday, came as Cuba’s delegation to Washington issued a statement saying talks with their U.S. counterparts took place in a “climate of respect.”

“A review was made of the evolution of the migration accords in force between the two countries and the main results of the individual and joint actions undertaken by the Parties to cope with illegal migration and alien smuggling,” the Cuban statement said.

It said also Cuba had ratified protocols to prevent people trafficking and smuggling of migrants.

U.S. officials said that they had used the meeting to again press Cuba to release jailed American contractor Alan Gross.

Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews as part of a U.S. program that Cuba considers subversive.

Gross' arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 halted a brief thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations after Obama took office in January 2009.

U.S. officials have said they plan to raise the issue of the weapons shipment to Cuba soon.

Meanwhile, international vessel tracking monitor IHS Fairplay said that it had established that five North Korean cargo ships had made similar journeys since 2010, including the O Un Chong Nyon Ho, which docked in Havana, Cuba, in May last year.