Panama’s interdiction last week of a North Korean freighter bearing cargo from Cuba should open President Obama’s eyes. The seizure’s chilling implication is that significant trading exists among proliferators (and their powerful friends), despite mountains of sanctions resolutions, vaunted intelligence capabilities, and Western leaders who think dictators can be talked out of long-sought military capabilities. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama is botching a real opportunity by mistakenly deferring to the United Nations.

N Korea and Cuba

Much remains unknown about the shipment aboard the Chong Chon Gang, or what it carried inbound to Cuba. The Havana-Pyongyang story that the vessel was transporting obsolete weapons and equipment certainly warrants considerable skepticism. But even if its cargo was just that and nothing more, the mere fact of this newly revealed rogue-state trade route is bad news. “Axis of evil” was never just a metaphor, and membership is always open.

The freighter could well represent a pattern of trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, with Havana purchasing Pyongyang’s missiles, previously marketed to the Middle East and Africa, and other dangerous weaponry. We have no idea how often North Korean ships have made this passage, but last week obviously wasn’t the first one.

So far, the North has detonated three nuclear devices, possesses advanced chemical- and biological-weapons programs, and has long-range ballistic-missile capabilities (orbiting a satellite last December). Even under President Obama, America still labels Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, and Havana has long had at least a research-and-development program in biological warfare. Even those who didn’t experience the 1962 Cuban missile crisis should understand that ballistic missiles so close to America, particularly when supplied by a WMD-armed state, raise serious asymmetric risks.

The cargo of Cuban sugar concealing the military equipment constitutes the cover story, but clandestine operations often employ several layers of protection. Second-level cover often involves admitting facts no longer plausibly deniable, but portraying them in ways that deflect further investigation. When the United States engineered the 2003 interdiction of a ship conveying, along with legitimate cargo, uranium-enrichment equipment for Libya’s nuclear-weapons program, Italian customs authorities discovered the contraband packed in crates labeled “used auto parts.” We shouldn’t allow similar duplicity to work here.

Start with careful scrutiny of that purportedly aged military equipment on the Chong Chon Gang, supposedly en route to North Korea for repair and return. Perhaps so, but experts have rightly asked why not bring Pyongyang’s technicians to Cuba, which would be both less expensive and less risky. Perhaps the materials were being sold outright to North Korea, for use or reverse engineering to develop more modern capabilities. Or maybe the real payload is hidden within the junk.

And let’s not forget those 200,000 bags of “sugar,” which some speculated could be Cuba’s in-kind payment for the “repairs.” Instead, those sacks might contain illegal narcotics, as the initial tip to Panama’s authorities indicated, and which is consistent with Pyongyang’s well-known drug smuggling to earn hard currency. Or the sacks could involve biological or chemical weapons materials. All it would take is one bag out of 200,000 to risk major damage.

Beyond North Korea and Cuba, slipping through the interstices of the world’s enormous commercial networks is easily accomplished, as drug-smuggling and money-laundering enterprises prove daily by land, sea and air. It should be no surprise if conventional-arms traffickers and WMD proliferators do the same. Such illicit trade wouldn’t require enormous volumes to pose potentially significant threats, and the technology need not be highly sophisticated. For the Chong Chon Gang, it meant simply turning off the ship’s transponder at key points, thereby masking it from international scrutiny, something aircraft can also do.

Moreover, this episode demonstrates that confidence in the efficacy of international sanctions often is misplaced. On Iran’s oil sales, for example, widely reported official statistics showing declining export volumes ignore the ways Tehran can sell oil off the books. These include trucking oil through Iraq into Turkey, transferring oil to Iraq for domestic consumption or export as “Iraqi” oil, or simply smuggling the old-fashioned way under fake papers. If Cuba and North Korea are game, surely Tehran’s sophisticated oil traders are at least as creative.

As with the 2003 Libya interdiction, Panama’s seizure of the Chong Chon Gang was consistent with the Proliferation Security Initiative, launched 10 years ago to stop WMD trafficking. Although the initiative’s work is typically highly classified, its impact on proliferators is broadly acknowledged. Unfortunately, President Obama is not moving swiftly to investigate the suspect cargo. Instead he is giving way to the U.N. to evaluate possible sanctions violations. U.N. inspectors won’t even reach Panama until August 5, very belatedly, and they will bring into the picture North Korean and Cuban friends like China and Russia, potentially hindering U.S. counter-proliferation efforts.

The fundamental point remains: Panama’s interdiction highlights undeniably dangerous trade among rogue states and their allies. Will President Obama use this information wisely? Or will he ignore it because it would upset his fantasy negotiations with Tehran and Pyongyang?

John Bolton

Center for Security Policy