Armored Cars, Robots and Coal: North Korea Defies U.S. by Evading Sanctions
10 Mar 2020

North Korea has evaded United Nations sanctions for many months by exporting coal, sand and petroleum, and importing luxury goods including armored sedans, alcohol and robotic machinery. The findings are based on an upcoming U.N. report, other assessments using satellite images and shipping data, and interviews with analysts.

The exports provide North Korea with money to continue developing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, analysts say. And the imports of luxury goods show techniques that North Korea might also be using to procure dual-use technology for those programs, they say. The efforts to raise money are aided by the country’s sophisticated cybercrime operations that target financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges.

The upcoming annual report from the United Nations Panel of Experts gives more detail on the smuggling of two armored Mercedes sedans that were shipped from the Netherlands to East Asia in 2018 and that were the subject of an investigation by The New York Times and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in July.

The U.N. panel did its own investigation after the article and video appeared, and concluded that the cars were shipped from Europe after they were in the possession of two Italian companies — apparently the start of the supply chain, according to a draft of the report seen by The Times. The United Nations is expected to release the report this month.

In interviews, Sandro Cianci, a top executive at one of the Italian companies, confirmed that the company had bought two armored Mercedes sedans that were eventually shipped to Asia, but said they had not engaged in illegal activity and had no knowledge of the cars ending up in North Korea.

Over all, China and Russia have weakened the sanctions and are aiding the illegal smuggling, say American officials, analysts and the reports. In December, the two nations proposed to the United Nations an easing of sanctions.

American officials and analysts cite satellite images that show transfers involving North Korean ships in Chinese territorial waters as evidence of efforts to evade the sanctions.

“The Chinese have to enforce the sanctions against North Korea. They’ve got to stop the ship-to-ship transfers,” Robert C. O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser, said last month. “We need the Chinese to assist us as we pressure the North Koreans to come to the table,” he added.

The United States has pushed the United Nations to pass five rounds of sanctions resolutions since 2016.

Mr. Trump has made diplomacy with North Korea a signature foreign policy initiative. But American officials are frustrated that the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has rejected outreach from Washington since a round of talks between negotiators ended abruptly in Stockholm last October. That came after the failure of the second summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019.

The porous sanctions mean the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against North Korea is far from effective, and American officials are losing what they say is their only real leverage. That could help explain Pyongyang’s recent cold shoulder toward Washington, experts say.

By Edward Wong, Christoph Koettl, Whitney Hurst and Elisabetta Povoledo, The New York Times, 9 March 2020

Read more at The New York Times

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