With its launch of a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile this past
weekend, North Korea violated the 2006 United Nations Security
Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718. These resolutions forbid North
Korea from nuclear testing or ballistic missile launches and
imposes arms and financial sanctions on North Korea.
Despite international condemnation of North Korea's violation of
U.N. resolutions, China and Russia have so far prevented the U.N.
Security Council from taking effective action. The council may
resume discussions, but negotiations are unlikely to yield a strong
statement or additional sanctions. However, there are other U.N.
organizations, such the U.N. Development Program, involved in North
Korea despite its intransigence. The U.S. should seek to suspend
these activities as a clear signal of international displeasure
The failure of the Security Council to enforce its own
resolutions is both a travesty and a testament that there are often
drawbacks to relying on multilateral bodies to be the primary
enforcer of efforts to prohibit or sanction undesirable
Considering the dim chances of strong action by the Security
Council, the U.S. should seek to use other levers to pressure North
Korea. Unfortunately, aside from Security Council actions and
financial sanctions like those applied by the U.S. and allied
countries to good effect in the past, such levers are few and far
By its own choice, North Korea is an isolated country that
strictly controls the activities of international organizations and
non-governmental organizations operating in its borders. Actions
that might lead another country to consider modifying its behavior
have little impact on North Korea.
For instance, one of North Korea's few links with the
international community is the extensive provision of food
assistance. North Korea has been dependent on international food
assistance since the 1990s, and the World Food Program estimates
that nearly 9 million people (over a third of the North Korean
population) require food aid.
However, the barbaric indifference of the North Korean
government to the suffering of its own people makes this an
unlikely point of pressure: North Korea has shown little hesitation
in letting its citizens starve to make political points. Indeed, in
March 2009, months before an ongoing aid agreement between the U.S.
and North Korea was due to expire, the North Korean government
abruptly informed the U.S. that it would no longer accept food
assistance and ordered five non-governmental organizations involved
in distributing the food aid to leave the country.
The UNDP Lever
One possible lever, however, is to reverse the January 2009
decision of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) to return to North
UNDP originally suspended its North Korean activities after
information provided by whistleblowers to the U.S. Mission to the
United Nations led the U.S. to question the organization about its
practices and activities. Based on the information it received, the
U.S. initiated an investigation that "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." The information gleaned from these
inquiries and subsequent media attention led the UNDP executive
board to suspend its activities in North Korea in March 2007.
The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate
Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs conducted
its own investigation into the activities of the UNDP in North
Korea and in a January 2008 report confirmed that deficiencies in
UNDP rules, procedures, and management permitted North Korea to
dictate the composition of UNDP staff, access hard currency, and
avoid standard monitoring procedures for projects and financial
An independent audit commissioned by UNDP and released in May
2008 similarly confirmed "how routinely, and systematically, the
agency disregarded U.N. regulations on how it conducted itself in
Kim Jong-Il's brutal dictatorship, passing on millions of dollars
to the regime in the process."
Resumption of UNDP Activities
After securing assurances from UNDP on a number of measures to
prevent further mismanagement, the UNDP executive board
voted in January 2009 to resume activities in North Korea. The
reforms implemented range from ineffectual to, potentially,
One ineffectual reform is the process for employing locals. The
report acknowledges that "no private labour market exists in the
Democratic People's Republic of Korea," so UNDP will now be able to
choose among three hand-selected DPRK candidates for a job instead
of just one.
Among the more substantive changes, UNDP:
- Will not permit "cash advances to the Government";
- Will "have unhindered access to project sites, as necessary for
the implementation, monitoring and oversight of its
- "Will verify delivery of all equipment to project sites";
- Will "ensure that international personnel conduct an annual
physical verification of project equipment against
To the extent that the executive board enforces these changes,
they are welcome. In the past, however, vigilance has not been the
board's strong suit.
In contrast to willingly repudiating food aid already in the
pipeline, the government of North Korea values resumed UNDP
activities. Pyongyang protested the suspension of UNDP activities
in March 2007 and pressed for their resumption in 2008.
It is easy to see why. Under the previous UNDP arrangement, the
government was able to circumvent the U.N.'s anti-proliferation
sanctions and secure "dual-use" technology (including computers,
software, satellite-receiving equipment, and spectrometers) that
could be used for its nuclear and military programs. Pyongyang was
able to launder funds using UNDP accounts, and UNDP staff concealed
evidence of North Korean efforts to circulate counterfeit $100
With the only real check on future misuse of UNDP programs and
funds a historically cavalier UNDP executive board--now unhelpfully
chaired by Iran--Pyongyang likely and reasonably expects to make
good use of UNDP in the future.
Hurting the Government, Not the
Suspending the recently renewed UNDP program in North Korea
would signal displeasure from the international community and is a
step that could likely be made with few programmatic consequences,
since UNDP activities have only just resumed. Most importantly, the
seven UNDP projects, unlike the food aid that was repudiated by
Pyongyang, cannot reasonably be argued to immediately relieve the
suffering of those most affected by the depredations of the North
Korean government--the people of North Korea.
The decision to renew UNDP activities in North Korea sent
precisely the wrong signal earlier this year by rewarding a
government that has demonstrated little willingness to cooperate
with the international community or take steps to reduce the
suffering of it own citizens. Failing to suspend UNDP activities in
the wake of North Korea's recent defiance of U.N. Security Council
resolutions would only compound the error.
Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory
Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.