Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Wall Street Journal: - Return to Pyongyang

A reform lesson at the U.N., of all places.

The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, presented her credentials to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week. Among the issues they discussed, she said in her inaugural press conference, was "how we [can] make the organization more efficient and effective and continue the process of reform."

[Review & Outlook]AP

Susan Rice.

Toward that end, we hope someone briefs the ambassador on the United Nations Development Program as it prepares to return to North Korea. The 2007 U.S. exposé of fraud and mismanagement was a wake-up call not just for the UNDP, but for more accountability throughout the U.N. system. U.S. investigations uncovered sloppy personnel practices that gave North Korean officials access to sensitive information; poor oversight of funds, including some diverted to Pyongyang's pockets; and illegal transfers of dual-use technology. In response, the UNDP executive board took the unprecedented step of suspending its operations in North Korea.

Two years and several probes later, the board voted last week to go back in. The good news is that the conditions under which the UNDP will return address many of the problem areas. According to the conditions approved by the board, the agency will resume seven projects that were suspended in March 2007, with the proviso that additional projects have to be approved personally by the head of the UNDP. The agency will have "unhindered access" to the projects. It will also have some flexibility in hiring local staff, who hitherto were handpicked by Pyongyang. And, our favorite, "there will be no cash advances to the Government."


The most significant reform, however, has to do with the UNDP's internal audits. Incredibly, until recently internal audits were deemed top secret, even to member states. That is, those who pay the bills weren't permitted to see how their money was spent. In the case of North Korea, as investigations by the U.N. and the U.S. Congress showed, no one -- except perhaps Kim Jong Il -- knew where the money went. That's now changed. The UNDP has agreed to make internal audits available to board members "upon request," a spokesman tells us.

Several of Ms. Rice's predecessors -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, John Bolton -- have tried to make the U.N. a more transparent place. Others have focused more on going with the bureaucratic flow. We hope Ms. Rice lives up to her promise of reform.

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