Tuesday, June 3, 2008

U.N. Report Renders Return to N. Korea Unlikely

By BENNY AVNI, Staff Reporter of the Sun
June 3, 2008

UNITED NATIONS — A long-awaited report on the activities of the U.N. Development Program in North Korea provides enough vindication for the agency's leaders to declare that some American criticism of the program was "exaggerated." Critics say, however, that the report exposes troubling issues that make any return to Pyongyang for the agency highly unlikely.

Yesterday, eighteen months after allegations first surfaced about irregularities in UNDP's activities in North Korea, a committee headed by a former Hungarian prime minister, Miklós Németh, released its 353-page report. The document offered "a little bit for everybody," an official who has followed the issue closely said.

Questions surrounding the UNDP, which also served as "resident coordinator" for other U.N.-related funds and programs in Pyongyang — and allegations of rules violations, presented to the UNDP's board of directors — resulted in the North Korea program's suspension in March 2007.

"We don't see at this point any reason for the renewal or restart of the program," the American ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said yesterday.

The UNDP administrator, Kemal Dervis, said that decision is up to the agency's board of directors. While he stopped short of claiming full vindication after the report's release, he told reporters that compared with the committee's conclusions, allegations in press reports and by American officials were "either vastly exaggerated or stemmed from misunderstandings, or some of them, maybe, from ill intent."

Still, a former American U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, said the report shows that agencies working in countries controlled by dictators have no way to ensure that their funds do not go to nefarious activities. "It is clear UNDP, like many others, cannot adequately control or monitor funds in North Korea," Mr. Bolton told The New York Sun. "Accordingly, no program there is warranted."

In one key finding, the Németh panel determined that the UNDP exported to North Korea American-made "dual use" items, such as GPS systems and computer programs, which are restricted by American law because they can be used in weapons systems. At least 95 items that Washington has classified "as being on the Commerce Control List" would have "required a licensee from the U.S. Commerce Department for export or re-export" to North Korea, the report says.

Even after the program was suspended last year, "the UNPD transferred a large amount of equipment in closed projects to agencies" of the North Korean government, the report says. Some of the equipment "would likely be considered by the U.S. to contravene its export policies." Nevertheless, the panel concludes that "international laws" governing such transactions are "exceedingly complex," leaving their applicability "unresolved."

"Our view is that our laws have to be observed in transactions" involving dual use items, Mr. Khalilzad said.

The panel says it was unable to calculate the exact amount the agency spent in North Korea between 1999 and March 2007 because it lacked "financial transaction information." It estimates that the full value of the disbursements was between $33.3 million and $48.5 million. The panel also found that 38% of the UNDP's monetary disbursements in North Korea were made directly to government agencies. Still, UNDP data are "reliable" and the numbers are consistent with the agency's reporting, the panel concludes.

The report's most damning findings are not about the agency but about a former employee in the UNDP's Pyongyang office, Artjon Shkurtaj. Last year, the U.N.'s ethics officer, Robert Benson, found "prima facie" evidence to investigate Mr. Shkurtaj's claim that the agency retaliated against him after he exposed problems within the program. But yesterday's report concludes that Mr. Shkurtaj "proved to be an evasive witness," that some of his assertions were "untenable," and that the UNDP "did not retaliate" against him.

Mr. Shkurtaj said yesterday that by not presenting him with the findings before publishing them, the panel "violated my rights to due process." He said he is still waiting for Mr. Benson's investigation and indicated that he could pursue the case in American court.

The report's findings on Mr. Shkurtaj do not nullify some of his initial allegations, which the report confirmed, his defenders said.

"We have allegations from multiple sources, not one whistleblower," Mr. Khalilzad said.

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