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Cuba's shipment of 50-year-old weapons to North Korea likely paid for in sugar

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Sugar Cube (credit: Jay White, Flickr)
Sugar Cube (credit: Jay White, Flickr)

The bizarre discovery this week of a North Korean vessel trying to pass through the Panama Canal with a cache of Soviet-era Cuban weapons now has a new twist: the whole operation may have been paid for with the sugar on board. Buried under 250,000 sacks of sucrose, there were some 240 tons of 50-year-old missiles, radar equipment, and even a pair of MiG jets — all of which the Cuban government describes as obsolete due to their advanced age.

"This obsolete shipment is just the tip of the iceberg."

Officials in Havana claim that the weapons were intended to be refurbished in North Korea and returned to Cuba, a deal which analysts talking to the Wall Street Journal claim might have been funded with the seemingly innocent sugar on board. An anonymous US official is quoted as suggesting that North Korea got Cuba's business by undercutting Russia's price and accepting payment in sugar rather than hard currency. The famously isolationist North Korean government doesn't have access to the same international commodity markets as everyone else, so the idea of it bartering archaic weapons expertise for basic provisions isn't quite as wild as it might seem at first blush.

Former US policy advisor Roger Noriega is among those who believe that "this obsolete shipment is just the tip of the iceberg," presenting the relationship between Cuba and North Korea as much sweeter than might have been expected.