Fidel Castro lauds North Korea as U.N. inspects weapons cargo

HAVANA (Reuters) - North Korea gave Cuba extensive military support in the 1980s, former President Fidel Castro said on Wednesday as the United Nations investigated a cargo of hidden Cuban arms discovered last month in the hold of a North Korean ship.

Castro, who turned 87 on Tuesday and is rarely seen or heard from in public these days, gave his people a lengthy glimpse of his thoughts in a column dated Tuesday and run in all official media on Wednesday. Topics included the origin of man, relations with the Soviet Union, the assassination of U.S. President John Kennedy, and the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

A U.N. team arrived in Panama this week to check the cargo of 240 tons of "obsolete defensive weaponry" Cuba has admitted were on board the seized North Korean vessel for possible violations of international sanctions on the Asian country.

Panama seized the ship in mid-July as it made its way from Cuba to the canal with a cargo of 320,000 sacks of Cuban sugar, under which the weapons were discovered.

Cuba said the weapons were being sent back to North Korea for repair and included two anti-aircraft batteries, nine disassembled rockets, and two MiG-21 aircraft, all Soviet-era military weaponry built in the middle of the last century.

Castro, perhaps in an effort to explain his country's close ties with North Korea, said on Wednesday that Cuba turned to its friends for military support in the 1980s after Soviet leader Yuri Andropov made clear his country would not intervene if Cuba were attacked by the United States.

"We decided to ask other friends for sufficient arms to field a million Cuban fighters," Castro wrote.

"Comrade Kim Il Sung (who died in 1994), a veteran and exemplary soldier, sent us 100,000 AK rifles and accompanying ammunition without charging a penny," he said.

Cuban officials have been mostly quiet on Panama's seizure of the Korean vessel, but not Fidel Castro, who ceded power to his brother Raul after taking ill in 2006.

In a letter to various Latin American presidents who attended ceremonies on July 26 marking the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the revolution, he said the incident was being used to slander Cuba.

"In recent days there was an attempt to slander our Revolution, trying to portray (President Raul Castro) as tricking the United Nations and other heads of state," Castro wrote on July 26th.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Jane Sutton and Vicki Allen)