Jeffrey LewisChong Chon Gang Interdiction

Steph Hagard wrote a great little piece on the Chong Chon Gang interdiction.  I have only a few additional comments.

1. I find the story that Cuba was sending the equipment to North Korea for refurbishment plausible.  In fact, it resolves a minor mystery.  In 2006, the Cuban’s revealed new mobile launchers for the S-75 and S-125,  leading many to people to ask which country performed the upgrade.

Two new mobile versions of the Soviet-era S-75 (SA-2 ‘Guideline’) and S-125 (SA-3 ‘Goa’) have been unveiled by Cuba, writes Grzegorz Holdanowicz. Both were displayed during the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the creation of Communist Cuba’s air force and air defence (Defensa Antiaerea y Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria – DAAFAR), on 18 April 2006 in the ‘Playa Giron’ Guard Air Brigade (Brigada de Aviacion de la Guardia Playa Giron) at San Antonio de los Banos.

Launchers for both systems have been installed on the chassis of the T-54/55 main battle tank family. Since only the launchers were paraded, it is unclear whether a similar scheme has created mobile versions of the radar and command posts. DAAFAR is thought to have 12-13 battalions of S-75 and S-125 systems.

The mobile launcher of the S-125 system externally resembles the Polish W-125SC launcher of the S-125SC Newa-SC system (see JMR December 2005, p9). However, Polish authorities and companies engaged in development and production of Newa-SC have categorically denied any links with Cuban programme. (“Cuba reveals mobile S-75, S-125 launchers,” Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, 13 June 2006)

Carlo Kopp has already noted differences between the Polish upgrade and what we saw in Cuba. I think we have to seriously consider the possibility that North Korea is handing the upgrade program for Cuba’s air defenses. (Although the North Koreans parade their own S-75 and S-125s on rather more quotidian vehicles.)

2. I also suspect Cuba was paying for upgrade with the sugar, which has a market value on the order of a few million dollars.  There are at least two advantages for North Korea in taking barter as payment. Sugar and other goods bartered may not run afoul of the financial restrictions imposed in the sanctions.  Moreover, it is politically more difficult for the United States and its allies to seize foodstuffs headed to starving North Korea. And the Cubans were probably delighted to pay in sugar.  And the North Koreans can meet the annual candy ration.

3.  Finally, the Panamanians say they have invited the UN Panel of Experts to examine the cargo.  This is a successful implementation of sanctions, but it is a special case. Panama has a President who likes to pose with interdicted drug shipments, which was the basis for stopping this ship.  The fact that it was laden with weapons was just bad luck for the North Koreans and Cubans. Well, luck may or may not have anything to do with it.  It was unfortunate for the North Koreans and Cubans at any rate.  Sanctions implementation remains still poor for a number of reasons, one of which is that the United States and its allies have not created incentives to make states as eager to enforce sanctions on Iran and North Korea as they might be to interdict drug shipments.

In particular, I draw your attention to the saga of the M/V Monchegorsk, a Russian-owned, Cypriot flagged-ship that the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines chartered the Monchegorsk to carry a shipment of small arms to Syria in violation of UNSCR 1747.

The US interdicted the shipment at sea in  January 2009, forcing it to return to Cyprus. The Cypriots had a real problem — the could not return the goods to Iran or allow them to continue to Syria without drawing the ire of the international community.  But Cyprus also faced retaliation from Iran and especially Syria, which responded to a previous interdiction by opening ferry service to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. But the United Nations would not take the arms either. The British and Germans were willing to take the cargo, but the Cypriots were worried about the legality of the seizure.  They needed the political cover of a United Nations solutions, as well as technical assistance in handling the dangerous cargo.  Ultimately, the cargo sat in Cyprus, stored improperly, for more than two years until it exploded in July 2011 killing a dozen people, including the commander of the Cypriot Navy, and destroying the main power station for the island.

You can pretty much kiss any further Cypriot enforcement of sanctions good-bye now. As I noted following the explosion,”the Security Council, in elaborating on the obligations outlined in UNSCR 1540, [should] enjoin states seizing illicit goods to forfeit their  possession to a designated United Nations entity, which in turn would arrange for disposal. There are a variety of options that might work, from supervised destruction under UNMOVIC to a model of delegated disposal under the sanctions committees.”

We have another chance to do this correctly.  Let’s not make Panama regret looking beneath those sacks of sugar.


  1. Sean (History)

    Carlo Kopp wrote that one, not me! Still a very good look at what upgrades are out there for legacy systems.

    I’m not sure the idea of the Cubans sending equipment to the DPRK for repairs makes sense. I find it more logical that they were procured to provide spares for the DPRK. The idea that Cuba would box all of this stuff up and then ship it all the way to the DPRK just to have it repaired and sent back doesn’t really seem too logical. I understand where you’re coming from with the idea of food-for-repairs, it just “feels wrong”. A lot of this stuff is what you’d want if you needed parts, and the MiG-21, S-75, and S-125 are all in the DPRK’s inventory. If Cuba legitimately needed stuff fixed, the kind of repairs they may need are such that could be done on-site by technicians, making the effort of going through the pack-and-ship process a bit dubious. Furthermore, absent the ability to produce large numbers of spares for themselves, the DPRK would have to strip components from its own inventory to repair the Cuban equipment. Is that a likely proposition? Would they really want to be yanking components from their own IADS to do this? It’s possible that the DPRK is basically a middle man in all of this, insofar as they could have another pipeline supplying parts to use. But I still have to wonder why Cuba would be going to all this trouble to send things all the way there and expecting them to come back again.

    Also, the only SAMs required to be reported in Category VII of the UNCAR are MANPADS or ship-based SAMs like Standard or Sea Sparrow. Land-based SAMs like the S-75 and S-125 would not be required reporting under the UNCAR, but they could still be covered by one of the UNSCRs.

    Lastly, I’ve seen no evidence at any of the DPRK’s missile sites that they have modified their S-75 or S-125 batteries to use mobile TELs. This suggests that the Cuban modification is probably a native system, or if they got outside help it wasn’t necessarily from the DPRK.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Thanks, I’ve attributed the article to Kopp.

      It is certainly worth holding the Cuban claim that the items were to be repaired and returned to scrutiny, but I don’t think I can dismiss it.

      Maybe I’ve spent too much time staring at North Korean machine tools, but I think they probably make their own spares.

      I admit that I would be more comfortable if I saw the system in the DPRK, but the DPRK does make T-55 chassis — and sticks weird stuff on them.

      Now, we are way outside the area I am comfortable in, but I bet the DPRK could do it.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Both the S-75 and S-125 were originally built as mobile systems and so while it’s doubtless not as simple as placing them on a new chassis, the hard work of engineering them to withstand transport and still function has been done.

      Also, both these systems are 1950’s vintage, meaning vacuum tube, technology. There simply aren’t many places in the world with the ability to repair these systems, much less make parts for them. I think Russia still makes vacuum tubes for their legacy systems (both defense and civilian), but probably few others. One of those others is probably North Korea. Given their massive legacy IADS network and historic problems with getting stuff through the embargo it seems likely that they simply set up a factory to build these things and are now offering their services in repair to other users of these systems. The fact that they’ll take payment in sugar (or doctors?) just makes them all the more attractive.

    • Sean (History)

      “Both the S-75 and S-125 were originally built as mobile systems”

      -No, they were not. They were intended to be road-transportable, but it takes about a whole day to take the system down. Then you transport it in a huge convoy, and take another day to set it back up. The first legitimately mobile strategic SAM system they had was the S-300PT (SA-10A GRUMBLE), and even that one required about an hour for set up or tear down thanks to backwards TEL design. The S-300PS (SA-10B) dropped that down to a flat five minutes, as in they can be cruising down the road, hit the brakes, and be killing things in five minutes. THAT is a mobile system! The older ones, S-75/125/200, were merely able to be relocatable but were not true mobile SAM systems that could exploit mobility as part of their standard operations.

      As for the Norks being able to produce their own spares, it is possible given the old tech involved. I’ve just never come across anything saying they were self-sufficient in their IADS spares, so I can’t call it either way.

      I still think the idea of packing all of this up and shipping it from Cuba just for repairs is a bit of a stretch. Now, if we stuck a third party in there somewhere, somebody not Cuba that the DPRK would ship this stuff to after repairing it, it’d be a more interesting scenario. Not sure who’d actually want a bunch of this old crap though, given the plethora of other options available. It’d have to be somebody pretty restricted in who they can do business with, possibly unable to import arms through traditional means. Eritrea or Sudan would seem plausible. Sudan is tight with the PRC, so there’s the possibility that this is set up to allow the DPRK to profit from the repair work, shipping the equipment overland into the PRC for transshipment to Sudan. Something to think about.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      Or it could be a complete refurbishment and digital upgrade using off the shelf components,the north has lots of these systems so upgrading would make far more sense than trying to replace them all with newer systems like the possibly s300 derived one that appears to be in service with the north,this would also make good sense for the cubans as they cannot afford to replace their older systems with new state of the art equipments and refurbishing it to its original vacuum tube standard would really just be a waste of time as its combat effectiveness would be marginal at best.As for putting
      “weird” stuff on tank chassis I think you`ll find that the dprk is not alone in this as both east and west operated large caliber spgs,however I think in this case mother russia wins the prize

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Good lord, that link is spectacular.

  2. Olli Heinonen (History)

    In late 80’s some staff from a place called Chong Chon Gang Chemical Plant was involved in acquisition of vacuum equipment suitable for uranium enrichment. May be their machine tool shop is specializing in non-chemical products ? Or this is just a coincidence.

  3. Tterb (History)

    This is an interesting ship.

    “On 11 March 2009, the ship was chased by Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea. Pirates shot guns and an RPG from a speedboat, which damaged the ship and injured two crew members. After the attack, the ship caught the attention of maritime officials when it made a stop at the Russian naval facility in Tartus, Syria. It’s unknown why it was there.” (

    That’s from wiki, but I was able to verify the pirate report through another source.

    Interesting that she was in that part of the world considering some above mentioned Sudan or Eretria.

  4. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I am curious whether anyone, including our esteemed host, thinks it would make any difference in the UN, or in international law, if the Cubans were telling the truth?

    • Scott Monje (History)

      The same UN resolution that bans the trade in weapons also bans the provision of maintenance services to or from North Korea.

  5. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I realise belatedly that it might not be obvious my first post was a rhetorical question. I think the global economic hegemony (UN, WTO, World Bank, G8, G20, etc.) led by the US, wouldn’t, as my mom would have said, give them air in a jug. I think Cuba is talking to the “non-aligned nations”, who are much more likely to care.

  6. Scott Monje (History)

    Here’s a question for the conspiratorially minded. Given that it’s curious that they sent the parts unnecessarily to Korea (if technicians could have sent to Cuba instead), used a ship with a big North Korean flag painted on it that was known to deal in contraband in the past, put at risk archaic components that no one would really miss, sailed through a country where the president “likes to pose with interdicted drug shipments,” etc., etc., do you suppose this could have been some sort of decoy intended to be caught? Was there some other ship sailing around doing something nefarious while the US intelligence community was focusing on this one?

  7. Gregory Matteson (History)

    IMO, compliance would be contrary to human nature.

  8. Boli-Nica (History)

    Both countries doing a straight up sale or refit does make sense. Some Cubans speculate its an under-the-table sale to earn cash.

    But, what if all this hardware was being sent to North Korea for refitting and shipment to a different end-user? Read elsewhere on this blog that Syria has lost a couple of SAM sites. They also fly the Mig-21’s. They could use the spare engines, both Migs, 9 missiles and 2 fire-control radar vans to replace missing hardware and/or supplement their batteries.