Obama officials refuse to end Cuba talks after weapons discovery

The United States on Wednesday participated in talks with Cuba about easing travel restrictions despite the seizure of a North Korean ship with a hidden cargo of weapons from the island.

Cuba said Tuesday that the ship, which was stopped by Panama on its way back to North Korea through the Panama Canal, contained “obsolete defensive weapons” that were on their way to be repaired.

The Obama administration said the shipment violated international sanctions and called for the United Nations to investigate, but vowed to pursue negotiations on other issues.

“We don't expect that the issue of the ship that was stopped in Panama will come up,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said ahead of Wednesday's talks. “I would say that we have told the Cubans that we will discuss with them very soon this ship, but we're focused on the migration talks, specifically on migration-related issues.”

“This is an ongoing process of talks on this issue because we believe that safe, secure migration is in U.S. interests. So this is a topic we discussed with them, we'll continue to discuss with the Cubans going forward.”

The Obama administration is in negotiations on resuming direct mail exchanges with Cuba and lifting some restrictions on travel and remittances to the communist island. Cuban-American lawmakers reiterated their opposition to easing sanctions on Cuba in the wake of the latest incident.

“The shipment of weapons systems by the Cuban government to the government of North Korea is a grave violation of international treaties,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “Weapons transfers from one communist regime to another hidden under sacks of sugar are not accidental occurrences, and reinforces the necessity that Cuba remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor state terrorism.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) urged the administration to nix this week's talks.

"This incident should serve as a wakeup call to the administration, which over the past few months has been leading an apparent effort to normalize relations with Cuba, that it cannot continue to engage the Castro regime,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”

Harf said Panama had asked for U.S. assistance in inspecting the ship's contents. The ship was reportedly tracked by U.S. intelligence operatives following an unusual visit to Cuba last week by the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army.

“Generally speaking, the types of technical assistance we could provide include things like identifying the material onboard, as well as providing personnel who are familiar with these types of inspections. So we stand ready to help,” Harf said. “And, of course, I think it goes without saying that any allegations of violations to U.N. Security Council resolutions are incredibly concerning to us.”

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