A United Nations agency that quietly shipped computers and computer servers to North Korea several months ago apparently was violating restrictions on the equipment’s use imposed by Hewlett-Packard, the U.S.-based maker of the computers and computer servers, which bars any HP equipment from being sent to the communist dictatorship as part of its supplier agreements.
Those agreements oblige distributors to comply with U.S. export laws, which also forbid electronics exports to North Korea, in support of UN sanctions that were levied in the wake of the regime’s illegal explosion of nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.
“HP is thoroughly investigating the matter,” a corporate spokesperson told Fox News in a statement Monday. “Compliance with U.S. and international trade laws is a high priority for HP. HP investigates any credible breaches of contractual obligations by our partners and resellers.”
The company’s export ban applies to suppliers regardless of where they are located and whether they are international organizations.
In addition, two former members of a UN-appointed panel of experts monitoring the North Korean restrictions have told Fox News that they found the technology transfer by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization “horrible” and “egregious” in the words of one -- “somewhat incompetent and possibly shady,” in the words of the other, in light of the sanctions the UN and its members are supposed to be enforcing.
News of the under-the-radar computer shipment -- and now, the revelation that it was delivered in violation of the manufacturer’s rules -- comes on the crest of heightened tensions between the UN Security Council and the nuclear-ambitious, rogue North Korean regime.
Hours before HP delivered its statement to Fox News, the Security Council had “strongly condemned” the government of newly installed leader Kim Jong Un for its latest provocation, a failed ballistic missile launch that North Korea said was intended to put a satellite in orbit.
The rest of the world viewed the launch as a test of the nation’s ability to deliver nuclear warheads, and a “severe violation” of the previous UN sanctions that ordered the regime to cease and desist its nuclear military ambitions. Even North Korean supporters China and Pakistan joined in the condemnation.
The Security Council -- currently headed by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice – is to announce additional sanctions covering new “entities and items” within the next two weeks.
The latest UN-North Korea standoff underlines the strange nature of the earlier computer shipment to Pyongyang carried out at the behest of WIPO.
Fox News brought the cash-for-computers incident to light after WIPO’s director general, Francis Gurry, held a closed-door meeting with concerned diplomats, including a U.S. representative, in Geneva on March 29.
The diplomats, in turn, learned of the shipment after WIPO’s staff council voiced concerns about it.
The cash-for-computers deal was orchestrated in a way that made its discovery difficult. Procurement and payment for the WIPO goods was arranged between WIPO’s Geneva headquarters and a shipper in China, facilitated by UN offices in Beijing. The deal apparently bypassed UN offices in North Korea.
Those offices operate under a special oversight regime established after a major scandal in 2008 over financial and technology transfers in North Korea, to ensure that money and goods do not end up in the regime’s nuclear programs.
WIPO’s payment of $52,638 to a Chinese supplier and installer for the computer shipment, however, did not go through. It was blocked at the beginning of March by Bank of America, the host bank for UN accounts in China, on grounds that the money transfer for goods shipped to North Korea was a possible violation of U.S. Treasury rules.
The computer equipment itemized in WIPO’s work plans for the installation was manufactured by Hewlett-Packard.
In a legal memorandum delivered to the diplomats in Geneva, WIPO said the shipment was nothing more than “part of WIPO’s technical assistance program” with North Korea, which is completely above board and consisted of “general computer technology” that “does not violate any UN Security Council sanctions.”
The memo acknowledged that payment for the shipment had been stopped due to U.S. laws “enacted in part to implement” the binding UN sanctions.
But it also declared that WIPO, “as an international organization, is not bound by the U.S. national law in this matter” and was still looking for ways to pay for the shipment.
The agency has since said it found a way to pay for the goods through other channels that did not involve U.S. banks.
The WIPO legal memo made no mention of contact with or notification of UN sanctions committees that monitor the restrictions on North Korea before the shipment was delivered.
The most recent Security Council resolution, passed in June 2009, specifically calls on “all States, relevant United Nations bodies and other interested parties, to cooperate fully” with the sanctions committee and its panel of experts, “in particular by supplying any information at their disposal on the implementation of the measures imposed by resolution 1718 (2006) [the previous sanctions measure] and this resolution.”
According to George Lopez, a professor of political science at Notre Dame University, who served on the North Korea sanctions panel of experts from November 2010 to July 2011, WIPO’s lack of communication with the sanctions committee is a puzzle.
"Were I still on the panel of experts,” he said, “I am sure some of us would insist that the UN secretariat issue a memo to all agencies reminding them that no movement of goods or individual experts into a sanctions state should occur without some exchange of ideas and views with the panel and/or the UN sanctions committee for that case.”
Lopez also pointed out that the UN sanctions against North Korea prohibit the shipment of “luxury goods” to the regime and even if they did not qualify in any other way, the computers sent to Pyongyang fit that description.
“The Japanese have actually arrested and indicted people who have illegally exported computers to the DPRK in at least two instances,” he said, citing reports of a shipment to a North Korean computer center believed to be a focal point for hacking attacks on South Korea.
According to Victor Comras, member of a UN panel of experts from 2009 to 2010, “something is not kosher when a UN agency takes advantage of being immune to knowingly violate U.S. laws.”
“They are walking through the cracks and loopholes of the sanctions regulations,” he told said. “There should be some recognition that international organizations themselves are obliged to follow the rules.”
“It clearly has hurt the credibility of the U.N. and its sanctions. To what end?”
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found on Twitter@GeorgeRussell