UNITED NATIONS

U.N. agency's dealings with North Korea on nerve gas chemical spark more concern

A United Nations agency’s go-it-alone decision to facilitate an international patent application from North Korea for production of the embargoed chemical sodium cyanide—used in making nerve gas —continues to spark concern among close observers of U.N. sanctions against the rogue regime, nearly a week after the U.N. body dismissed the issue as outside the bounds of  U.N. sanctions resolutions.

At the same time, the bellicose behavior of the rogue dictatorship of Kim Jong Un was continuing to escalate, with yet another illegal ballistic missile firing over the weekend to add to a long string of defiant gestures aimed at accelerating development of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

In that context, a number of experts contacted by Fox News formed part of a growing consensus that the patent facilitation process was not the most troubling issue—among other things, North Korea already has thousands of tons of chemical weapons at its disposal.  

The bigger concern was  that the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, had made no mention of the international application to the U.N. Security Council committee coordinating North Korea sanctions, nor to the U.N. Panel of Exports that reports sanctions violations to the committee.

Nor, apparently, did WIPO feel it had any need to do so. The application first came to the Geneva-based U.N. agency in November, 2015.

The patent action by the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, an obscure U.N. agency in Geneva, was first revealed by Fox News on May 15

At the time, the coordinator for the U.N. Panel of Experts told Fox News that his group “has no record of any communication from WIPO to the Committee or the Panel regarding such a serious patent application,” and declared that the panel had officially “opened an investigation into this matter.” When the investigation will be concluded was not disclosed.

A day later,  WIPO in a statement decried the Fox News story as “inaccurate and erroneous,” and reiterated  an assertion already made in the story that WIPO’s secretariat communicates with the “relevant U.N. oversight committees as necessary.”

WIPO also reiterated  that it “has put strict procedures in place to ensure full compliance with all requirements in relation to UN Security Council sanction regimes”—though it didn’t say what they were, or how they were triggered, only adding its “as necessary” comment.  

Atop that, WIPO made the sweeping  assertion that patent applications “are not covered” by the growing number of sanctions resolutions passed since North Korea first exploded an illegal nuclear device in 2006.

To buttress its case, the agency cited a general exemption for patents issued by the U.S. in the context of its own sanctions against North Korea—an action that took place, as WIPO admitted,  prior to WIPO’s publication of the cyanide application. 

A U.S. Treasury spokesperson subsequently told Fox News that the exemption applied only to U.S. sanctions in North Korea and “was not in any way connected to this North Korea issue with WIPO.”

What was more at stake, however, as the world continues to struggle with controlling the excesses of the belligerent North Korean regime, is whether far-flung U.N. agencies with various technical mandates feel they have any obligation to behave as part of the U.N. when its highest values of global peace and security are at stake.

One of the experts contacted by Fox News noted that  the U.N. Security Council in 2009 had urged “all States, relevant United Nations bodies and other interested parties, to cooperate fully with the [sanctions] Committee and the Panel of Experts, in particular by supplying any information at their disposal” about implementation of a 2006 sanctions resolution against North Korea. That resolution specifically included sodium cyanide as a banned chemical.

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2009 RESOLUTION

The expert, who asked for anonymity, is affiliated with the Alpha Project, a specialized sanctions support unit in London that works with U.N. sanctions panels, the European Union and other organizations on improving and analyzing sanctions and improving trade controls where sanctions are applied.

The word “urged,” however, in diplomatic parlance has the force of a strong suggestion.

As another expert, a former U.S. official familiar with sanctions issues, told Fox News:  "As a technical legal matter, they probably have a strong case that they are not violating anything. The key issue isn't that they are violating the rules but that they should be exercising more care and diligence in countries under sanction."

That stance was doubly underlined by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who last week issued two separate statements on the WIPO controversy. In the first, she declared that “a common sense reaction would be for WIPO to inform [the U.N. Security] Council of such patent applications. Its failure to do so may have dangerous consequences.”

Late last week, after WIPO published its rejoinder to Fox News, Haley issued another statement that  indicated U.S. unhappiness with the agency’s intransigent stance, declaring that the U.S. “continues to be concerned about the way the World Intellectual Property Organization has handled North Korea’s patent application for the production of sodium cyanide.”

“All parts of the UN system,” Haley added, “need to support the Security Council in its efforts to respond to the grave threat of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs.”

In particular, she urged “all U.N. agencies to be transparent and apply the utmost scrutiny when dealing with these types of requests from North Korea and other rogue nations.”

Not responding coherently or transparently, however, has long been the hallmark of WIPO under its imperious and idiosyncratic Director General, Francis Gurry.

In 2012,  he galvanized  an even bigger uproar when he shipped, by circuitous means, U.S.-made computers and servers to North Korea and Iran, once again without notifying U.N. sanctions committee officials.

At that time, he was able to claim a narrow legal right to do so, though U.N. investigators expressed amazement at the notion of shipping the equipment “to countries whose behavior was so egregious it forced the international community to impose embargoes.” 

In their report, they noted that as far back as 1974, WIPO had signed  an agreement with the U.N. that expressly said WIPO “agrees to cooperate in whatever measures may be necessary to make coordination of the policies and activities of the United Nations and those of the organs and agencies within the United Nations system fully effective.”

What was a jaw-dropping deviation from that document in 2012, however, now looks more like a deep-seated habit.

The question for the U.N. may be  whether it feels it’s a habit the rest of the world must continue to afford.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell