Turtle Bay

North Korea accused of violating U.N. sanctions on nuclear weapons trade

North Korea accused of violating U.N. sanctions on nuclear weapons trade

The U.N. Security Council will issue this week a long-delayed report alleging that North Korea may have transferred ballistic missile and nuclear technology to Syria, Iran and Burma, ending a six-month effort by China to block the report’s release. It was obtained today by Turtle Bay from a Security Council diplomat ahead of its release on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The decision to lift the Chinese hold comes two days before President Barack Obama is due to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao in Seoul, Korea, where the two leaders are attending a G-20 summit meeting. The United States has been the strongest proponent of imposing tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea in an effort to persuade Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear ambitions.

The 75-page report reinforces U.S. claims that North Korea — which has been repeatedly sanctioned by the 15-nation council for developing nuclear weapons — has also emerged as a key supplier of banned weapons materials to Washington’s greatest rivals. Produced by a seven-member independent panel, the report voiced alarm over reports from unnamed foreign governments that North Korea assisted Syria in the design and construction of the Dair Alzour thermal nuclear reactor, which was destroyed while under construction by Israeli war jets in September, 2007.

The findings are based on interviews with several foreign governments, U.N. nuclear inspectors, and reports in the media. Those sources  indicated North Korean "involvement in nuclear ballistic missile related activities in certain other countries," including Iran, Syria and Burma. For instance, the panel is investigating "suspicious activity" by a sanctioned North Korean firm in Burma, as well as reports that Japan arrested three individuals in June, 2009, for attempting to illegally export a magnetometer to Burma.

A magnetometer   can be used in the production of ring magnet, a component of a nuclear centrifuge, according to David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert who heads the Institute for Science and International Security. It can also be used in a missile guidance system, he said.

Albright said that the U.N. panel report’s findings, which have been leaked to the press months ago, have largely confirmed Western intelligence agencies’ suspicions about North Korea’s illicit activities. But the formal release of the report is important because it places a U.N. imprimatur on these claims. "It’s significant that they are saying it," Albright said.

The delayed disclosure of the panel’s findings – which were completed in May and first reported this morning by Reuters — underscores China’s increasing efforts to prevent the Security Council from vigorously enforcing a broad range of global sanctions that have targeted key Chinese allies, and in some cases, turned up awkward evidence of Chinese arms turning up in some of the world’s most deadly conflict zones.

China recently sought to block the release of another U.N. panel report showing that Chinese ammunition has found its way into Darfur, in violation of U.N. sanctions. While the report does not accuse China of knowingly violating the embargo, it raised the prospect that legal, loosely regulated Chinese arms sales to Khartoum may be making their way illicitly into Darfur.

The U.N.’s North Korea panel, meanwhile, noted that foreign governments and private experts on North Korea’s weapons programs have reported concern that Pyongyang "has the capability as well as the propensity to provide nuclear and ballistic missiles related equipment, facilities, technical advice to and through clients overseas." The report points to "evidence provided in these reports indicates that the DPRK has continued to provide missiles, components, and technology to certain countries including Iran and Syria since the imposition of these measures."

The U.N. Security Council expanded U.N. sanctions against North Korea last year and revived a moribund sanctions panel to ensure the enforcement of a series of measures aimed at curbing North Korean trade in nuclear and ballistic missile technology.  China supported the resolution’s adoption but it has voiced concern privately over the public disclosure over highly sensitive findings.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch