Friday, June 4, 2010

U.N. Keeps Quiet on Suspect Boxes From North Korea

BY BENNY AVNI - Staff Reporter of the Sun

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. officials failed to inform New York or federal authorities about an illness suffered by two employees who had handled boxes shipped here from North Korea — boxes that might have been contaminated — U.N. sources said.

The U.N. contractors suffered headaches and nausea and felt sick enough to report the incident and seek treatment. The U.N. security authorities were concerned enough to deploy their own hazardous-material team but failed to seal the site where the incident occurred or evacuate its workers. As of yet, no determination was made about the source of the symptoms suffered by the two workers. No American authorities were notified.

"A determination was made not to contact the New York authorities," a U.N. spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, said. U.N. security officials decided that the two persons who got sick should first get treatment. "Our own hazmat team" examined the boxes that the two persons handled, and the air quality in the basement where the boxes were stored is expected to be examined today, she said after The New York Sun began to inquire about the incident yesterday.

An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the cause of the "coughing, dehydration, and headaches" suffered by the two employees was not yet determined but added that "they are okay now."

The two unidentified persons were members of an investigative team formed last year to probe allegations of wrongdoings in the U.N. Development Program's office in North Korea. Last fall, 60 boxes, filled with documents and other office material, were shipped from the UNDP's Pyongyang office and were stored in a basement of a building adjacent to the U.N. headquarters. On January 14, the boxes were first examined by members of the investigative team, who started opening them a week later, on January 21.

The two investigators got sick after opening a box that was described by one source as "damp" and containing "some mold." Another source described a substance on the box as "powder." After feeling ill, the investigators got in touch with their UNDP contact, who passed the information to the agency's security team.

According to one source who has contacted the Sun, members of the independent investigating team were advised to wear unspecified protective gear when handling the material in the future. The source said there was a lot of concern among the investigators, some of whom wondered why the whole affair was kept quiet.

A UNDP official said yesterday that the boxes that were sent from the agency's Pyongyang office were "at no time" handled by North Korean officials.

But according to an preliminary probe conducted last year after allegations about rule-breaking in the UNDP's North Korea offices, members of the Kim Jong Il government were dispatched to the agency's Pyongyang office where they were used as local employees.

North Korea, which at one point was described by President Bush as part of the "axis of evil," has long been suspected of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, including long-range missile technology, nuclear know-how, and chemical and biological weapons. In August, U.N. employees — from the team formed in the 1990s to search illicit weapons in Iraq — encountered suspected hazardous material stored in a Midtown Manhattan office.

After the building where the suspected substance was discovered was sealed, the FBI was contacted, and federal and New York authorities were brought in to investigate alongside U.N. experts. The press was also notified, and the story led the news for a while before the suspected contaminant was declared harmless.

Secretary-General Ban ordered an independent investigation after the incident sparked ridicule and criticism of the United Nations in the press.

U.N. officials therefore may have decided to avoid similar press coverage this time by not contacting the New York authorities, one official said yesterday.

February 1, 2008 Edition > Section: Foreign > Printer-Friendly

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