Report

North Korea Continues to Flout Trump, Advance Nuclear Ambitions

A U.N. panel concludes that the U.S. president’s outreach to Kim Jong Un has changed little in his behavior. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) presides over a target strike exercise conducted by the special operation forces of the Korean People's Army at an undisclosed location in an undated photo.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) presides over a target strike exercise conducted by the special operation forces of the Korean People's Army at an undisclosed location in an undated photo. STR/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, illicitly import fuel and other prohibited items, and stock up on luxury goods in defiance of United Nations sanctions, underscoring the limits of U.S. President Donald Trump’s high-profile diplomatic campaign, according to a report by a U.N. panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea.

North Korea “did not halt its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, which it continued to enhance, in violation of Security Council resolutions,” according to the U.N. report, which tracks developments in 2019 and is expected to be made public in the coming days. “It continued maintenance and construction of nuclear facilities, though it declared no nuclear tests and carried out no intercontinental ballistic missile launches.”

In June 2018, Trump held an unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in hopes of negotiating an agreement that would result in the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief and U.S. security guarantees. The two leaders would meet two more times—once in Hanoi in February 2019 and finally in June 2019 in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea—making Trump the first U.S. president to touch ground on North Korean soil. But the high-profile meetings failed to produce an agreement. The following month, North Korea began resuming its ballistic missile activities, launching two short-range missiles.

By the end of 2019, North Korea had fired at least 25 ballistic missiles in 13 launches, including tests of new short-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It also continued to develop infrastructure for the expansion of its nuclear weapons and domestic missile industry and to engage in a series of U.N.-banned trade deals that have previously been used to fund its illicit military operations, according to the report.

The Trump administration has largely downplayed the significance of the missile tests, noting that a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests is still holding. Kim imposed the moratorium more than two years ago, at a time when the two leaders began participating in an unprecedented, though ultimately unsuccessful, round of direct talks. Kim, however, announced late last year that he no longer felt bound by the moratorium as his diplomatic engagement with the United States had not resulted in the sanctions relief he anticipated.

The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on Oct. 14, 2006, five days after Pyongyang detonated its first underground nuclear test, in an effort to compel the government to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

The sanctions—which initially targeted North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs—have since been expanded to include key economic sectors, part of an effort to constrain the government’s ability to raise revenues that could be used to support its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But North Korea has proved particularly skilled at evading those sanctions.

The U.N. panel documented concerns over a wide range of schemes aimed at breaching the sanctions, from the establishment of financial front companies that conceal banned transactions to the export of North Korean workers, including manual laborers, doctors, information technology specialists, and athletes, who earn income abroad, much of which is siphoned off by Pyongyang. The U.N. inadvertently posted the report, which is due out later this week, on its website for a few hours on Friday before taking it down. The findings were previously reported by NK News, which posted a copy  of the report on its website.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to flout Security Council resolutions through illicit maritime exports of commodities, notably coal and sand,” the U.N. panel wrote in the 267-page report, using the formal name for North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). “Such sales provide a revenue stream that has historically contributed to the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.”

The U.N. panel claimed that North Korea also violated a U.N.-imposed cap on the import of more than 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum products. North Korea has employed a variety of evasion techniques to avoid detection of such illicit imports, relying on North Korean ships and increasingly turning to a fleet of foreign-flagged vessels with checkered histories.

North Korea “widely employs illicit means to import refined petroleum products,” according to a U.S. non-paper cited by the U.N. panel. “As a result, the DPRK imports volumes of refined petroleum that far exceed the 500,000 barrel per annum limitation” imposed by the U.N. Security Council in December 2017.

The report said vessels delivering banned goods to North Korea have routinely ceased transmitting their coordinates on the internationally recognized AIS tracking network before entering North Korean waters, making them virtually invisible to international monitoring. Other foreign vessels surreptitiously transfer their cargo to North Korean vessels on the high seas, evading detection.

According to the U.S. non-paper, North Korea imported more than 3.89 million barrels of refined petroleum between Jan. 1, 2019, and Oct. 31, 2019. Most of the fuel was unloaded at the North Korean port of Nampo by North Korean vessels. But foreign vessels registered in Panama, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Vietnam accounted for a growing portion of illicit imports, delivering more than 1.5 million barrels over the same period.

The U.N. panel documented a brisk international business in the illicit export of prohibited luxury goods to North Korea, including expensive watches, cognac, brandy, vodka, and luxury vehicles, including a pair of Lexus LX 570s—the Japanese car-maker’s $90,000, top-of-the-line SUV—which were observed in a November 2019 photograph alongside Kim.

The panel also conducted a wide-ranging investigation into the journey of two Mercedes-Benz S-Class 600 sedans from a factory in Germany through a raft of middlemen in Italy; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Osaka, Japan; and Busan, South Korea, before being loaded onto a vessel that shut off its AIS after leaving port. They later appeared in a photograph in North Korea.

The report concluded that years of biting U.N. sanctions are having an “unintended negative impact” on North Korea’s civilian population, undercutting livelihoods for those employed in industries hit by sanctions, including thousands of overseas workers who can no longer legally work abroad.

The economic hardships, meanwhile, have only boosted the control of government elites over the country’s increasingly scarce resources, while sanctions have disrupted medical supply chains, furthering weakening a “chronically underfunded and inadequate health-care system,” and dissuaded financial institutions from working with U.N. and private aid agencies in North Korea.

“Financial institutions and private-sector entities continue to refrain from transactions tied to a high-risk jurisdiction,” the report stated. “The collapse of the United Nations banking channel and the subsequent lack of access to consistent and reliable financing jeopardizes supply chain operations and results in projects being suspended or stopped altogether.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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