Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In North Korea, UN Did Not Raise Press Freedom, Hires Staff from Gov't Lists, UN's "Comparative Advantage"?

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 16 -- How badly does the UN under Secretary General Ban Ki-moon want to be relevant in North Korea? His senior advisor Kim Won-soo and his Political Affairs chief Lynn Pascoe traveled to Pyongyang and did not even raise the issue of press freedom.

In response to questions from Inner City Press upon their return, Mr. Kim said that "things are moving forward," while Mr. Pascoe claimed that the UN Development Program "hires its own employees now rather then take them through the government." Video here, from Minute 12:52.

But Mr. Kim later clarified that UNDP staff will still be chosen from lists forwarded by the Kim Jong-Il government, only there will be "multiple" candidates. He acknowledged that the UN still has problems with "access and visas" but said there are at the "local level." In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, it all comes from the top: Kim Jong-Il, with whom the two did not even meet.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists has named North Korea as the most censored country on earth, and had called on Ban Ki-moon to speak out more forcefully on press freedom. Inner City Press asked Pascoe and Kim Won-soo about this. Pascoe said they hadn't raised press freedom "per se." Kim Won-soo, who was asked twice about press freedom, did not answer the question.

Most questions were about whether North Korea will rejoin the Six Party talks about its nuclear programs. That is up to the Six Parties, Pascoe and Kim Won-soo repeatedly said. The UN is a go between. For example, Pascoe said that his staffer Aleksandr Ilitchev is "going to Moscow tomorrow," after along with Ban staff Lee Sang-Hwa being on the trip, presumably to brief on the Six Party talks.

On UNDP, Mr. Kim told Inner City Press, "You are right, UNDP's program has been suspended for two and a half years. The Resident Coordinator [moved back] three months ago." According to Mr. Kim, he's had to focus on renovating the UN office and residence. "The building was empty, so we couldn't see any safe there," he said, referring to the safe in which counterfeit dollars were found, which UNDP never reported until a whistleblower raised it.

That whistleblower was something of an elephant in the briefing room on Tuesday, with Mr. Kim Won-soo assuring that all UN programs in North Korea will now be scrutinized. Ironically he mentioned a "geo-spacial" mapping project which was one of those that got the UNDP program into trouble two and a half years ago.

Background: Five months into Ban's tenure atop the UN, in May 2007, he was angered by the leak to Inner City Press of ainternal memo ("Korea Peninsula UN Policy and Strategy Submission to the Policy Committee") proposing that the UN use its "comparative advantage" to make itself relevant on the North Korea issue.
Now, the competitive advantage is being used.

Back in 2007, Ban had been forced to order an audit of the UN Development Program's North Korea practices, including funding project which it could neither visit nor oversee. UNDP's program had been suspended.

The UN memo stated that "Unless [the suspension] is reversed, the UNDP program risks being terminated. Rather than being able to support the six-party talks process and international engagement with North Korea at this critical juncture, the UN will lose its unique comparative advantage in that area altogether."

Recently, despite the continuing nuclear standoff and renewed firing across the border, as well as lack of movement on human rights, UNDP re-started its North Korea program. And now the Ban administration's "comparative advantage" is back.

UN's Ban, Mr. Kim and Lynn Pascoe, press freedom not shown or raised

After the February 16 briefing, Mr. Kim Won-soo stayed and answered further questions. He said there are 39 international staff from six UN agencies currently in North Korea. He said the programs there spend approximately $45 million a year; he pointed out that's $2 a person. UNDP will come up with a five year plan by "sometime in March," then seek approval from the UNDP board. Things are, he said, moving in the right direction. And on those who seek to leave the country? And on press freedom? Watch this site.

Footnote: this was Kim Won-soo's first on the record briefing at the UN, following requests made based on the JoongAng Ilbo's on the record quote about the trip attributed to Mr. Kim. Later, also on the record, Ban's Associate Spokesperson Choi Soung-ah told Inner City Press that Mr. Kim "did not give an exclusive to JoongAng Ilbo." But the UN never sought a retraction. Mr. Kim appeared on Tuesday, and Inner City Press asked him to return for another briefing about the Ban administration's wider work. We'll see.

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