The weapons shipment found on board a North Korean intercepted by Panama likely represents a violation of a United Nations arms embargo on Pyongyang, analysts say.
The ship was stopped on suspicion of drug smuggling as it attempted to pass through the Panama Canal after leaving Cuba. Instead of drugs, however, authorities found several caches of undeclared weaponry hidden under a shipment of sacks of brown sugar.
Cuba released a statement claiming the cargo as its own but downplaying its strategic value. It said the shipment included several missiles, two MiG-21 fighter jets, and other "obsolete" Soviet-era military equipment that it was sending to North Korea for repair.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, described the shipment as "nothing but aging weapons" that it had agreed to overhaul.
But even the transfer, if not the sale, of weapons to North Korea for repair could be a violation of U.N. sanctions, said Ben Habib, a Korea analyst at Australia's Latrobe University.
"I imagine there would still be some kind of quid pro quo involved in repairing these things. This would still constitute a 'trade,' as such," Habib told VOA. "So that would violate the sanctions regime."
Current international sanctions against North Korea prohibit the sale, transfer or maintenance of most arms and related material. Small arms and light weapons are exempt from those bans.
This means the type of weapons in the Cuban weapons shipment is clearly not allowed, says Hugh Griffiths, a weapons trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
"Most definitely. These aren't small or light weapons," Griffiths said. "And really, small arms and light weapons for import into North Korea are the only lines of military equipment which are explicitly exempted by the United Nations Security Council resolutions."
Griffiths also says it is unlikely the shipment is a disguised sale of weapons to North Korea, as some analysts have suggested.
"The North Koreans have a track record of servicing, upgrading and repairing pretty old Soviet or Chinese military equipment which is still maintained and used by some poorer states," he told VOA.
Griffiths said North Korea would have little reason to go all the way to Cuba to acquire such weapons.
"The North Koreans already have a lot of antiquated air defense systems. They may be in the market for more, but they they could buy those systems from elsewhere. They don't have to go to Cuba to buy them."
Panama has asked for U.N. experts to help examine the ship and its contents, and a Security Council committee that monitors sanctions on North Korea is expected to take up the case.
The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions in North Korea's three nuclear tests since 2006 and its repeated test flights of ballistic missiles.