UNICEF’s North Korea office barred from oversight of its own health projects, audit probe warns

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Five years after the United Nations Development Program closed, then reopened its offices in North Korea amid controversy over the payout of hard currency to the rogue communist government and other issues, the child relief agency UNICEF has some of the same glaring problems, according to its own auditors.

The auditors’ conclusions also bear a strong similarity to conclusions reached last year about the work of the World Food Program in North Korea. In a report made public last April, the agency’s Inspector General noted that the regime kept the U.N. relief agency in the dark about the food supplies it had received, had North Korean nationals operating key parts of the agency’s information technology infrastructure, kept the agency from inspecting some of its own projects, and used extra-legal arrangements to cloak its role in the relief process.

The internal probe of UNICEF’s Pyongyang country office was conducted in October 2013, but was only published late last year. Among the red flags it raises:

--39 employees at the office are not UNICEF employees at all, but are assigned to the agency by the Kim Jong Un regime. They have no contracts with the U.N. agency, and according to the audit there was “no formal agreement between the Government and UNICEF that specified their employment conditions.” By contrast, there were only 15 foreign staffers in the office when the audit was conducted.

--After an 11-day inspection visit, the UNICEF auditors “could not establish whether risks in working with these staff” --whose loyalties to the U.N., even on a temporary basis, were formally non-existent—“had been sufficiently assessed and managed.” The audit strongly implies that the North Koreans have access to UNICEF systems and records that urgently need to be formally defined, along with their “responsibilities and accountabilities.”

--As part of the same arrangement—or non-arrangement—UNICEF is paying various North Korean government ministries some $240,000 in hard currency a year—even though, as the audit puts it, “the basis for this payment was not clear,” presumably because the employees have no contract with UNICEF to justify the payout. The audit does not say how much the employees themselves were paid in North Korea’s local currency, while the Kim regime kept the hard cash.

(A UNICEF spokesman, in response to questions from Fox News, added that the agency itself “also pays a food allowance in local currency directly to the nationals working in our office” --a good indication of concern that the non-employees might otherwise face severe hunger.)

--While UNICEF is supposed to be supporting an array of health and education programs in the country—including campaigns financed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) –and is supposed to be monitoring their progress, the audit notes that the agency’s international staff are banned from entering 35 of North Korea’s 208 counties, which hold about 13 percent of the nation’s roughly 25 million people.

(According to the GFATM website, the fund, which is heavily supported by Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as the U.S. government, has spent some $70.8 million overall on anti-malaria and anti-TB programs in North Korea since 2010, with UNICEF’s North Korean branch as the prime conduit for the funds.)

In 17 of the no-go counties, only the employees provided by the Kim regime are allowed entry to monitor the programs, which are implemented by the North Korean government.

--In 18 of the 35 no-go zones, however, even the agency’s North Korean sort-of employees are forbidden entry. UNICEF is supposed to be  providing vital vaccinations and vitamin supplements to babies and pregnant women in those areas. UNICEF says that it carries out government-approved monitoring visits-- to ensure that its work is being carried out adequately. But the report says the UNICEF office itself warned auditors “that the risk of inaction in these specific areas of essential work by UNICEF is very high.”

In other words, the Kim regime could simply be keeping the medical supplies for itself, a charge that has been frequently raised by human rights activists, including escapees from the brutal regime.

UNICEF’s annual report on North Korea for 2013 makes no mention of the visiting ban. It notes blandly that “the country has an orderly institutional mechanism which contributes to making program implementation at the formal level prompt and efficient. However, this does not necessarily make it equally easy to reach the remotest parts.”

--Even though the agency’s policy calls for annual evaluations of its program work, the report says, UNICEF has been unable to do any formal evaluations of programs in the country under its current four-year plan, which ends this year, because Kim regime policies “constrained” data collection that would support the process. Moreover, the local office had not fully noted and passed on to the agency’s regional headquarters the restrictions on UNICEF’s project monitoring and evaluation.

--By the same token, UNICEF is supposed to produce a “new or updated situation analysis” at least once during the life of its program for the country, based on elaborate user surveys. For its “2011-2015 program, the agency used a survey conducted in 2009—but the auditors note that “UNICEF did not have access to the data sets or the data entry process, and could not independently validate the reliability of the data.”

In other words, both ends of the UNICEF program—the baseline data going in, and at least part of the monitoring process on the output end—were taking place in a kind of twilight zone controlled by one of the world’s most brutal, bellicose and opaque dictatorial regimes.


In itemizing UNICEF’s problems, the agency auditors declared that the highest priority was developing “risk assessment and guidance” with UNICEF higher-ups to fix the problem of the North Korean “non-employees” in its system. The “high priority” deadline: mid-2015. A UNICEF spokesperson told Fox News that internal “consultations” on the issue “have commenced”—but didn’t indicate when they would end.

Nor could she predict whether there would ever be an agreement with the Kim Jong Un regime to end the bizarre work arrangement, as “it has not proven possible to date” for UNICEF to get such a deal.

On the other hand, the spokesperson declared that the North Korean government staffers in UNICEF’s office at least cannot run the place. They “do not have financial control rights in UNICEF’s accounting systems and are not able to authorize expenditures or pay for goods or services on behalf of the organization. They cannot manage budgets, authorize travel, human resources changes or payments, reconcile bank statements or amend program details.” Nor do any of them work in “information security or communications.”

Moreover, UNICEF’s data has gotten better since the four-year plan was designed, she said.

It is now based on “complex and sophisticated statistical modeling” performed in coordination with other U.N. agencies, she said.

And in the counties where no UNICEF staffer or North Korean non-employee can enter, she offered the reassurance that “UNICEF only provides vaccines for children, for which the risk of non-use for intended purposes is extremely small.”

The spokesperson summed up that UNICEF monitoring of the success of its programs “is the best we are able to undertake in the circumstances and we are firmly convinced our support saves and improves children’s lives. However we would welcome free and full access to all children in all counties in DPRK [UN-speak for North Korea’s formal name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and we are convinced that DPRK’s children would benefit from such access.”

In the U.N. General Assembly, at least, none of those sentiment and reassurances get any argument. In a resolution in December that roundly—by U.N. standards--condemned the Kim regime for its horrific human rights record, member states tucked in soft words that noted “with appreciation” the “collaboration” between North Korea’s government and UNICEF, “in order to improve the health situation in the country,” as well as on food security assessments, which supported “donor confidence in the targeting of aid programs.”

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