CBSN

How North Korea's Kim Jong Un dodges sanctions to keep nuclear program going

Last Updated Mar 7, 2017 5:05 PM EST

UNITED NATIONS -- An exhaustive new U.N. report documents North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s smuggling of nuclear materials, cash and ammunition through an elaborate underground web of foreign enablers that has let him advance his nuclear program and gain hard currency for the country that is supposed to be cut off by biting U.N. and U.S. sanctions

The 326-page report, released March 7 by the U.N., lays out an intricate network of financial institutions with fake names and addresses that transfer arms, cash, and gold on behalf of the Kim regime.  

The U.N. Security Council was to meet March 8 in closed-door consultations, called by the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, to discuss the report in light of North Korea’s recent missile tests.  

North Korea’s Ambassador to the U.N., Ja Song Nam, sent a letter to Council members asking for the Council to discuss the threatening nature of ongoing U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which he said were “the most undisguised nuclear war maneuvers to drive the Korean Peninsula and the rest of Northeast Asia region into nuclear disaster.”

The timing of the report it essential, coming soon after President Trump told reporters that North Korea’s nuclear program represents the “greatest immediate threat” to the U.S. It comes just weeks after Kim’s military test launched a ballistic missile, as Mr. Trump met the Japanese Prime Minister at his Mar-a-Lago resort home in Florida.

The panel of experts behind the report was brought together to document the effectiveness of the sanctions put into place by a resolution drafted by President Obama’s foreign policy team -- one that restricted coal exports and revenue and which requires the publication of the panel’s findings.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is flouting sanctions through trade in prohibited goods, with evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication,” the panel concludes.

Their report examines developments in North Korea’s nuclear program: Satellite images show the Punggye-ri nuclear test site under construction, a point underscored by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, also cited in the lengthy document.

One of the entities designated for sanctions, North Korea’s Atomic Energy Ministry, is essentially operating under the pseudonym of the Korea Kumsan Trading Corporation, the panel found. The report recommends that Kumsan be designated for sanctions, also, based on the attempted sale of prohibited minerals and use of the North’s embassy in Moscow for commercial activities.

All 193 U.N. member states are required to report on the sanctions. Two nations told the panel that the report reveals Kumsan collects nuclear technology-related data, and acted as the atomic ministry’s overseas representative.

North Korea launched 26 ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. sanctions in 2016 alone, and it has carried out five nuclear tests since 2006. The report identifies “two significant trends in the country’s ballistic missile programme (sic) which demonstrate major technological progress within a short period of time: significantly increased range through the introduction of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and a shift to solid-fuel technology in its submarine-launched ballistic missiles.”

Dozens of pages are devoted to Kim’s nuclear and ballistic missile developments.

Then comes the subterfuge: A section entitled “Embargoes” documents the continued trade in arms and materials through procurement services in Asia, Africa and the Middle East; the panel’s investigations in 2016 highlighted the country’s trade in encrypted military communications, man-portable air defense systems, air defense systems and satellite-guided missiles.

The report says debris collected from the February 2016 missile launch included foreign-sourced commercial items including camera electromagnetic interference (EMI) filter, ball bearings, and pressure transmitters.

Malaysia, where VX nerve agent was used in the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, is one of the many transit points where, the report says, foreign nationals and entities conduct business through multinational financial centers that conceal financial activity by North Korea.

Italy’s U.N. Ambassador, Sebantiano Cardi, who chairs the so-called 1718 Sanctions Committee (named after the resolution) that issues the report, told CBS News: “It is clear that North Korea is evading the sanctions, there cannot be any mistake.” For the Security Council, he said, the main objective is to somehow ensure better implementation of the sanctions regime.

“There are a lot of loopholes, so we have to be good at closing them; that is the only game for the moment,” Cardi said.

The new examples of illicit trade, the report says, represent a “significant shift from the former focus on refurbishment of Soviet-era arms.”

China’s role in many of the transactions is evident.

The report does not only deal with illicit purchases. It also documents North Korea’s sale of precision-guided rocket control sections and air attack satellite-guided missiles for ground attacks to Sudan, and North Korean construction of a munitions factory in Namibia.

One of the brighter sides of the U.N. report, diplomats say, is that North Korea is being caught with its hands in the cookie jar, and that the panel report will, hopefully, force countries to restrict the trade once it is exposed.

Oh Joon, the former South Korean Ambassador to the U.N., now in Seoul, told CBS News he believes sanctions will eventually have the intended impact.

“No matter how closed North Korea is, no country is an island economically. There might be some loopholes and hitches, but the continued implementation of the sanctions will work,” said Oh.

He agrees with President Trump’s assessment that North Korea “poses one of the gravest threats, not only to the region, but to the security of the whole world,” and he adds: “We cannot allow the DPRK to keep playing with fire.”

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.