Published April 01, 2009
NEWS ANALYSIS – After more than two years of accusations and probes into the operations of the United Nations Development Program in North Korea, a weighty report finally reveals how routinely, and systematically, the agency disregarded U.N. regulations on how it conducted itself in Kim Jong-Il’s brutal dictatorship, passing on millions of dollars to the regime in the process.
The 353-page report, by a three-member “External Independent Investigative Review Panel” appointed by UNDP to investigate itself, was published with much fanfare last week after nine months of political maneuvering and research.
The report depicts an organization that for years apparently considered itself immune from its own rules of procedure as well as the laws and regulations of countries that were trying to keep weapons of mass destruction out of Kim’s hands.
It also shows that UNDP apparently considered itself above the decisions of the United Nations Security Council itself when that organization tried — as it is still trying — to bar Kim from gaining the means to create more weapons of mass destruction.
That is the same Security Council whose decisions, U.N. officials argue, have the weight of international law when applied to the United States and the rest of the world.
Yet despite those rules, and in the midst of a growing international storm of concern over Kim’s behavior, UNDP’s North Korea office, as well as other UNDP offices, continued to hand over millions in hard currency to the Kim regime and to transfer sensitive equipment with potential for terrorist use or for use in creating weapons of mass destruction.
“What this report shows is that UNDP has operated lawlessly for far too long,” said Mark Wallace, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who brought many of the original accusations against the U.N. anti-poverty agency to light in January 2007 after examining confidential UNDP internal audits of its North Korean operation.
“U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated that integrity is a high U.N. priority," Wallace said. "It is now up to UNDP to follow that direction.”
The latest panel report initially was passed on to reporters on June 2 by UNDP boss Kemal Dervis at an unusual press conference where he hailed the report’s conclusions, saying that “we finally have some closure on the allegations made against UNDP.”
The actual authors of the report were not available for questioning or comment, Dervis said, until they presented the document to a meeting of UNDP’s supervisory executive board in Geneva. The meeting begins June 16.
But a close reading of the long and dense document, replete with mind-numbing footnotes, shows that Dervis is wrong.
Among other things, the report confirms that UNDP hired North Korean government employees to fill sensitive core staff posts, in violation of its own regulations, and that the Kim regime picked the staffers.
Previously this had been revealed by a report done by the United Nations Board of Auditors in May 2007 in the wake of Wallace’s concern. The 2007 report noted that the same violations had been reported in internal UNDP audits going back to 2001.
The UNDP office in North Korea paid the salaries of these staff directly to the government in hard currency — another forbidden practice. The report dryly notes, in a footnote on page 96, “It was not clear how much of these amounts were paid to the National Staff, if any.”
In an effort that may have been aimed at keeping at least some staffers from starving, UNDP gave them all hard-currency supplements in cash — another violation of its own rules.
The regime employees filled such critical jobs as UNDP finance officer; program officer slots that helped to design and oversee UNDP projects in the country; technology officer, who maintained all of UNDP’s internal and external communications and servers; and even the assistant to the head of the UNDP office, who presumably was in a position to see much, if not all, of the boss’ paperwork.
Those violations already were known, although only in the barest detail. But the latest report reveals a fact that makes matters much worse: The regime-appointed finance officer — the person who wrote UNDP’s checks for 10 years — also was responsible for reconciling UNDP’s bank statements with the checkbook.
These two functions are supposed to be separated as protection against fraud. The importance of that separation is strongly underlined in UNDP’s basic guidelines called the “Internal Control Framework for UNDP Offices.”
The potential for fraud by a North Korean government employee, however, is discussed in the report only in dry bureaucratic language.
Despite that the review panel brought documents showing millions of UNDP financial transactions out of North Korea, the report shows — in a footnote buried on page 53 — that the panelists never saw any of some roughly $16.6 million worth of cancelled checks that were signed by UNDP. The reason: Kim’s bankers won’t release the originals or copies.
Without the checks, it is impossible to see if the finance officer made them out to cash or if the names on them match UNDP payment records and bank statements.
The North Korean regime also refused to let the panelists interview the finance officer.
The potential fraud risks are huge. The report notes that in 78 percent of a transaction sample of UNDP payment records that they reviewed, the signature on payment receipts could not be verified. For all the rest there was no sign of a receipt at all.
The report declares, with great understatement, that “it is difficult to determine the ultimate beneficiaries of payments made by UNDP-DPRK on behalf of itself.”
The panel sharply hikes — by millions of dollars — the amount of hard currency that previous probes indicated UNDP had passed on to the nuclear-arming Kim regime from 1997 to 2007, as Kim was ramping up his nuclear weapons program and ultimately setting off a nuclear explosion.
Hard currency transfers to Kim of any kind supposedly were forbidden, but the 2007 investigation already had shown that the rule was violated not only by UNDP but other U.N. agencies in the country.
The latest report says that UNDP spent $23.8 million on behalf of itself and other U.N. entities in North Korea, almost all in hard currency that never was supposed to reach Kim. The panel estimates that 38 percent of this, or $9.12 million, went directly to the North Korean government.
But that is not all. The report also notes for the first time that other UNDP offices and agencies outside the country chipped in anywhere from $9.5 million to $27.4 million more in hard currency to the Kim regime over the same period, on behalf of the North Korean office.
Using the 38 percent yardstick that the panel applied to in-country spending, anywhere from $3.6 million to $10.4 million of those totals might have been directly passed on to the government.
In addition, the report makes passing mention of an even bigger flood of cash: $381 million that flowed into North Korea from non-U.N. donors through an arrangement called the Agriculture Recovery and Environmental Protection, or AREP, Cooperation Framework. UNDP projects in North Korea formed part of that framework and, more importantly, helped to support the entire arrangement. But the report goes no further in tracing those funds.
Unauthorized hard currency by no means was the only support UNDP was offering Kim. The report greatly raises the number of sensitive “dual use” items — good for civilian use and for terrorist purposes or helping to create weapons of mass destruction — that UNDP handed over to North Korea. These included computers, software, satellite-receiving equipment, spectrometers and other sensitive measuring devices: 95 items in all.
The policy of unquestioned transfer of dual use items continued even as the Kim regime in 2006 conducted ballistic missile tests and exploded a low-yield nuclear device to the outrage and dismay of the rest of the world; moreover, UNDP acquired at least some of the items in misleading fashion.
The report notes that when some items were purchased, “it was not explicitly stated … that the equipment would be utilized by DPRK nationals working under the auspices of UNDP projects in DPRK.”
In at least one instance, the report says, an employee with a UNDP sister agency even supplied false information to a Dutch manufacturer nervous about end-users in North Korea, telling him that the equipment would be used by the UNDP office in Pyongyang when it really was intended for a faraway rural location.
The report also shows that UNDP itself rarely asked its suppliers about any possible limits on the use of sensitive export goods and, even when it was explicitly informed, made little, if any, effort to keep records of dual use limitations on equipment.
(The report does not say so, but with North Korean government employees operating as program officers, the lack of conscientious record keeping might not come as much of a surprise.)
The report then dismisses any notion of holding anyone at UNDP accountable for these spectacular lapses by invoking a concept of blanket immunity.
UNDP and its officials, the report notes, are immune from the enforcement of U.S. and other national export control laws imposed for anti-terrorist or national security reasons, under an international U.N. Convention on Privileges and Immunities.
The document notes that despite that free pass, a U.N. legal opinion has held that the world organization can be bound by at least some export license limitations when it is retransferring those sensitive goods.
But the people really exposed to penalties for most of the transfers are UNDP vendors who supplied the goods, because they lack U.N. immunity. The panel notes that in many cases, lack of knowledge of the true use of the equipment is not considered a legal defense by many nations, including the U.S.
Having said that, the report tries to sweep under the rug the explosive topic of UNDP’s obligations to the U.N. itself when the U.N.’s chief executive body, the Security Council, calls — as it did twice in 2006 — for bans of sensitive technologies to Kim. Those bans are known as U.N. Resolution 1695, passed on April 15, 2006, after Kim sent test ballistic missiles in the direction of Japan; and Resolution 1718, passed on Oct. 14, 2006, five days after Kim’s low-yield nuclear blast.
Resolution 1695 applied to equipment that might be used in Kim’s ballistic missile program. Resolution 1718, however, was much more sweeping and called for bans on any equipment that might be used in any kind of weapons of mass destruction, as well as travel bans for officials associated with the weapons program.
The panel report tries to take as little note of these sanctions as possible. Resolution 1718, for example, is mentioned in a footnote on page 195 of the report. The footnote calls its applicability to UNDP programs “relatively minimal,” and adds, “a significant majority of the equipment bought in connection with the UNDP-DPRK program was purchased before the passage of this resolution such that [it] was inapplicable.”
Since the report also notes that the records were badly kept or non-existent, this is a hard assertion to contradict. But it is a highly questionable assumption, at best. The report earlier notes that any UNDP-purchased equipment in North Korea belonged to UNDP until it was officially transferred to a host government. That happened to all the items of dual use equipment in North Korea at the same time — in March 2007.
At that time, UNDP shut down its programs after the hue and cry over UNDP practices in North Korea caused the agency to amend some of its practices — changes that the regime refused to accept.
UNDP officials have argued, and the report tacitly echoes their view, that the transfer of equipment when agency projects are closed down is normal practice.
Hardly normal are Security Council calls for the world, presumably including the U.N. itself, to stop transfers of exactly the kinds of equipment UNDP gave to Kim. There is no sign, for example, that the agency gave any thought to finding another method of asserting its property rights until the sanctions were lifted or of asking other U.N. agencies in North Korea to try to keep tabs on the gear.
UNDP “normal practice” apparently trumped world peace and security. The report passes over that complication, involving a rogue regime that had conducted illegal atomic blasts, and that the U.N. itself had declared an outlaw, without comment.
With the same effect of sheltering UNDP from charges that it aided in endangering the peace and security of the world, the panel report declares that any charges that UNDP inadequately supervised the projects in North Korea under its care are untenable.
It based that conclusion on voluminous paperwork provided by UNDP that proved, the panelists said, that site visits to the project took place frequently and were unimpeded.
But the report fails to put those inspections in the context of the fact that four of UNDP’s program and liaison officers, who manage and help to create programs and perform liaison with institutions and vendors involved in the projects — also were North Korean government employees.
(The report is equally silent on the role of the Kim regime employee who served as UNDP technology officer, who was in charge of all of the UNDP offices' internal and external communications and its computer servers. UNDP communications and computers are supposed to be sacrosanct in terms of host country snooping. Instead, in North Korea, the potential snoops were in charge of the equipment. The potential implications of that fact are completely unexplored.)
Overall, one of the most striking aspects of the report is its lack of curiosity about whether individual members of the UNDP staff should be held accountable for egregious, longstanding and dangerous violations of UNDP rules and international law, not to mention common sense.
This applied notably to the presence in UNDP’s North Korean safe for more than a decade of $3,500 in defaced U.S. counterfeit $100 bills — “Super-Note” fakes that the Kim regime famously passed around the world. Possession of counterfeit U.S. bills is a crime. Even given U.N. legal immunities, it might seem an important matter to bring to the attention of one of the organization's biggest donors.
Yet no-one informed U.S. authorities and senior UNDP officials claimed no knowledge of the fake funds, even though the bogus money was listed on annual reports of the safe contents for years.
The report’s assessment: “There is no evidence that anyone acted in bad faith or in a fraudulent or deceptive manner. Instead, the Panel finds that there was a clear lack of attentiveness at the [office] and Headquarters levels and that communications between the Country Office and UNDP headquarters were inadequate.
“Inadequate communications” is the explanation often given in the report for failures that allowed rule-breaking to continue, even as Kim openly brandished his nuclear weapon. The report notes that in August 2006 — four months after the passage of U.N. sanctions Resolution 1695 — the UNDP office in North Korea asked headquarters for guidance on dual use equipment transmissions to North Korea. It never got any. The project, which was based in part on receiving satellite imagery, had equipment that the report says already had been purchased.
Then, on Oct. 11, 2006 — two days after the Korean nuclear blast — a UNDP regional supervisor in Thailand answered the guidance request. He ordered UNDP not to purchase any equipment and “to close down the project immediately.” In the same message, according to the panel, the supervisor, Romulo Garcia, said he had received clearance from his bosses to close down the project in late 2005.
As it happens, U.N. Resolution 1718, imposing more drastic sanctions on North Korea, went into effect three days after Garcia’s sudden desire to follow up on a two-month-old guidance request.
The panel report’s conclusion? The 2005 decision to shut down the project “does not seem to have been communicated to the UNDP-DPRK office, as equipment purchases continued throughout 2006, including some dual use items.”
That Garcia apparently did not double-check on whether this highly sensitive order was carried out until a nuclear device exploded and another U.N. sanctions resolution loomed is never discussed in the report.
But the lack of discussion speaks volumes, both about UNDP bureaucratic efficiency and about the apparent level of UNDP concern and internal discussion of Kim’s dangerous nuclear plans.
There is one prominent exception to the report’s attitude of sympathetic understanding toward UNDP lapses: the whistleblower who brought most of them to outside attention and inspired U.S. diplomats to call for multiple investigations, including the panel report.
The report concludes that the whistleblower, a former UNDP-DPRK operations manager named Artjon Shkurtaj did, in fact, perform a service when he brought the situation in the UNDP’s North Korea office to light. But the report emphatically denied there was any retaliation against Shkurtaj when a promotion he already had been given was withdrawn and other short-term contracts he held expired.
Such claims, the panel concluded, were “without merit,” as it also made attacks on Shkurtaj’s personal integrity.
At the same time, the report offers evidence that the North Korean regime may have been pressuring UNDP to keep Shkurtaj out of the job and reveals the alarming fact that the regime apparently had veto power over UNDP’s ability to fund the position.
For his part, Shkurtaj has declared that the authors of the report violated customary U.N. practice when they failed to show their conclusions to him prior to publication. He has appealed to the U.N. chief ethics officer, Robert Benson, to investigate.
So it may well be that the ultimate message of the report is that passing on potentially dangerous equipment to a ruthless dictator who threatened his neighbors and defied the U.N. itself apparently was regrettable but otherwise a lapse in communication. Talking about such things outside UNDP apparently was something else.
Rather than bringing “closure on the allegations against UNDP,” as the organization’s boss, Dervis, hopes, the North Korean investigative report ought to raise bigger and more urgent questions about UNDP operations around the world.
If Kim Jong Il’s despotic government was able to twist UNDP’s rules and its adherence to international law with such ease, what is going on in UNDP offices in dictatorships such as Zimbabwe and Syria?
Most urgently of all, as the U.N. wobbles toward further sanctions on the nuclear-ambitious Islamic regime in Iran, what is going on in UNDP offices in Tehran?
George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.