North Korea Tech Transfer

Wall Street Journal
Melanie Kirkpatrick

Of all the evidence turned up by the U.S. concerning irregularities in the United Nations Development Program’s operations in North Korea, some of the most disturbing concerns the transfer of dual-use technology.

As reported last month, the U.S. has uncovered documents showing the UNDP procured and delivered to North Korea in May 2006 technology that could be used for military purposes: global positioning system (GPS) equipment, a portable high-end spectrometer and a large quantity of high-specification computer hardware. According to packing lists and confirmation receipts, the items were intended for a “GIS” — geographic information system — project.

The equipment “is the type of technology subject to (U.S.) export controls,” says a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, which is responsible for issuing export licenses. So how did it end up in Pyongyang? It would seem more than passing strange that Commerce would have issued the requisite export licenses. The answer is: It didn’t.

U.S. officials, led by Ambassador Mark Wallace at the U.S. mission to the U.N., have spent a year looking into the UNDP’s operations in North Korea. Now, at the request of the State Department, Commerce searched its archives and found no record of any application for export licenses for the GPS, spectrometer or other equipment for the GIS project in North Korea.

Over the past 10 years, Commerce has received more than 200 license applications to export U.S. technology for U.N. projects in North Korea. Of those applications, the UNDP was named in a grand total of two, including one for software for the same GIS project that was equipped last year. That application was rejected.

Previously undisclosed documents show that the UNDP had been trying to equip the GIS project since at least 1999, when the application for an export license for mapping software was denied. Commerce cited concerns over the lack of safeguards in the project that could result in the software being diverted to the North Korean government and used for military purposes.

Yet seven years later, the UNDP procured and transferred sensitive technology to the same, unsafeguarded project — this time without bothering to apply for a license. And while there’s no evidence the UNDP went ahead and purchased the software for which it had been denied a license, that possibility must be considered, since GPS equipment is useless in such a project without mapping software.

The denial notice for “Case Number: Z177037” is dated Sept. 18, 1999. The “consignee in country of ultimate destination” is listed as the UNDP in Pyongyang. The one-page notice is written in prose that is clear and unambiguous: “The Department of Commerce has concluded that this export would be detrimental to U.S. foreign policy interests.”

The 14 items on the UNDP’s wish list were all classified “EAR99,” which means they are subject to Commerce jurisdiction but didn’t specifically appear on the Commerce Control List of items restricted for export. In discussions over the past several weeks with State Department officials, Commerce officials who examined the archives explained their agency’s decision to deny the export license. During the interagency review of the UNDP request, they say, questions were raised about whether the software would stay in North Korea after the UNDP international staff left and whether North Koreans would have access to the software.

Supporting documents show that the answer to both questions was yes. A letter dated April 5, 1999, from the software manufacturer that was seeking the export license on behalf of the UNDP, explains: “The project is supposed to be completed in three (3) years and the software will be left with the state agencies.”

Emails from the UNDP to Commerce offer further information about the UNDP’s security controls — or lack thereof. An Aug. 3, 1999 email from the UNDP’s Shankar Manandhar, in response to a Commerce query, says, “We would like to inform you that the North Korean nationals will have access to the computer in the project office in [the] presence of UNDP staff.” In another email, Mr. Manandhar notes that the software will be “utilized in the project office.”

The Defense Department recommended to Commerce that the application be denied. In a memo dated July 20, 1999, Defense explains that “These items could pose both national security and proliferation issues for the US and allies if diverted to the North Korean military.” Among the list of potential military applications cited are “planning a nuclear weapons infrastructure or missile launch sites.” And, “it could also be used for targeting.” In the end, as one Commerce official explained, since this type of mapping software can be used for military purposes, it was deemed to be “too great a risk of diversion.”

The Commerce official also says the case notes for the denial specify that several earlier licenses granted to the UNDP in North Korea had been conditioned in such a way that no North Korean nationals were to have access to the licensed items. Oh, really? Based on the UNDP’s replies to Commerce’s questions regarding the 1999 application, the official says that the licensing officer at the time believed it was “highly likely” that the UNDP was violating the terms of its previous licenses by allowing North Koreans access to licensed items. We now know — as confirmed by the U.N.’s preliminary audit of the UNDP’s North Korea operations — that the agency’s local staff were Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees assigned to the UNDP by the government.

It’s also worth noting the year these events took place: 1999. That is, the denial notice originated in Bill Clinton’s Commerce Department, part of an administration that was “conducting a one-sided love affair with North Korea,” in the felicitous phrase of Christopher Cox, then a Republican congressman closely monitoring Asian issues. On Sept. 17, 1999, the day before the issuance of the denial notice, the administration announced it would ease economic sanctions on North Korea. But approving the sale of sophisticated mapping software was a bridge too far even for the Clinton administration.

Since the U.S. went public in January with evidence of the UNDP’s lack of oversight of its programs in North Korea, the agency hasn’t exactly been forthcoming. At first, the UNDP denied that it had purchased dual-use equipment for North Korea, referring instead to “rice husk removers” and “plotters to help the [Korean] authorities more accurately produce maps for environmental monitoring.”

Next it look the line that the GPS equipment, portable spectrometer and computers delivered in May 2006 “do not represent state-of-the-art technology,” as Ad Melkert, the No. 2 UNDP official, put it in a June 28 letter to Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. An annex to Mr. Melkert’s letter describes the technology as “not high-end or sophisticated” — an assessment at odds with the representations of the manufacturers. Trimble, for example, maker of the GPS GeoXT Handheld sent to North Korea, describes its product as having “a powerful 416 MHz processor running the most-advanced operating system available.” Mr. Melkert says in the annex that the UNDP is investigating “whether the vendors [in the Netherlands and Singapore] were required to obtain export permits for these items” — which sure sounds like an effort to shift responsibility.

Since January, when the U.S. concerns were made public, the UNDP has pulled out of North Korea and the U.N. audit has confirmed extensive violations of U.N. rules regarding hiring practices, the use of foreign currency and site inspections. The latest U.S. revelations raise far more serious questions about the UNDP’s oversight. Under the most generous interpretation, the agency was negligent of its legal responsibilities to keep dual-use technology out of a country that is on the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states. At worst, it deliberately transferred the technology, knowing it was breaking U.S. law and helping to strengthen Kim Jong Il’s military dictatorship.

These questions — and many more concerning the UNDP’s record in North Korea — highlight the need for an independent, external inquiry of the UNDP’s programs world-wide. The U.S. first went public with its concerns in January, after months of pressing the UNDP for more transparency. If anything, as the latest U.S. evidence shows, things are worse than anyone thought.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.


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