Cuba's admission that it was secretly sending ageing weapons systems to North Korea turned the global spotlight on a little-known link in a secretive network of rusting freighters and charter jets that moves weapons to and from North Korea, defying United Nations sanctions.
The revelation that Cuba was shipping the arms, purportedly to be repaired and returned, is certain to jeopardise slowly-warming ties between Washington and Havana, although the extent of the damage remains uncertain.
Experts said Cuba's participation in the clandestine arms network was a puzzling move that promised little military pay-off for the risk of incurring UN penalties and endangering detente with America.
The ageing armaments, including radar system parts, missiles, and even two jet fighters, were discovered on Monday buried beneath thousands of tons of raw Cuban brown sugar piled on to a North Korean freighter that was seized by Panama as it headed for home through the Panama Canal.
North Korea is barred by the UN from buying or selling arms, missiles or components, but for years UN and independent arms monitors have discovered North Korean weaponry headed to Iran, Syria and a host of nations in Africa and Asia.
The UN says North Korea has also repeatedly tried to import banned arms and, analysts say, it maintains a thriving sideline in repairing ageing Warsaw Pact gear, often in exchange for badly-needed commodities, such as Burmese rice.
"They don't know how to grow rice, but they know how to repair radars," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private group. "The North Koreans are taking desperate measures to pursue that work. Despite the best efforts of the international community to cut off arms transfers to and from North Korea, it will continue in some form."
The surprise for many observers was that the latest shipment of arms headed to North Korea comes from Cuba, which acknowledged yesterday that it was shipping two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles, two Mig-21 fighter jets and 15 jet engine, saying they were headed to North Korea to be repaired there.
The discovery aboard the freighter Chong Chon Gang was expected to trigger an investigation by the UN Security Council committee that monitors the sanctions against North Korea and Panamanian officials said UN investigators were expected in Panama today.
Britain's UN ambassador Sir Mark Lyall Grant said "any weapons transfers, for whatever reason, to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime".