The U.S. Government is looking into exports of computer equipment to North Korea by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the State Department said Thursday.
The exports were first reported by Fox News in April.
Internal WIPO emails published by Fox News show concerns about the deal were raised in several quarters within the WIPO.
A string of emails began with notice from the UN Development Program office in Beijing to WIPO informing the organization that Bank of America had blocked a US$52,638 payment for the computer equipment based on U.S. sanctions. A conversation between WIPO staff ensued that showed a general lack of clarity on whether the shipment was covered by the sanctions and concluded with this advice from Berenice Bessiere, directory of WIPO’s procurement division:
“Regarding our transaction to North Korea and the payments difficulties we have, I would like to share the below message from OLC that basically is recommending to cancel the whole operation to the benefit of North Korea,” read a message from Berenice Bessiere, director of procurement and travel at WIPO, sent on March 14, 2012.
The emails show general confusion about whether the U.S. sanctions on North Korea would apply to the export of computers, servers and networking gear for North Korea’s patent office.
The confusion led to a March 22, 2012, email from the WIPO Staff Association that said it was “extremely concerned by the fact that WIPO staff may be implementing a project in violation of two UN Security Council Resolutions.”
“Based on the information gathered by the Staff Council, Member States have not been consulted and have no knowledge of this project. Thus, they were not given an opportunity to review or object to it. The project was allegedly approved directly by the Director General,” the email read.
A legal memo, also published by Fox News, was issued on March 28, 2012, and included the organization’s director general among the recipients.
It revealed the blocked payment was only blocked after the computer equipment had been installed in Pyongyang by a contractor, but went on to argue that U.S. sanctions didn’t apply to WIPO.
“WIPO, as an international organization, is not bound by the U.S. national law in the matter,” it read. “The memo concludes that the transfer of computer equipment in the manner described above is not banned by either the U.N. resolution or the promulgated lists.”
On Thursday, Patrick Ventrell, director of the State Dept. press office, said the U.S. is “reviewing” development projects covering North Korea and Iran.
Here is the transcript of the relevant part of the daily briefing:
QUESTION: Hi, Catherine Herridge, Fox News. What’s the status of the State Department investigation into these WIPO transfers to North Korea and Iran?
MR. VENTRELL: Well, I do have something for you on that. Hold on one second. So you’re asking about – I believe this is the World Intellectual Property Organization?
MR. VENTRELL: I can tell you that we’re reviewing their development projects both for Iran and the DPRK. We’re working with both the Director General and other member-states to institute reforms that will ensure future development projects are properly reviewed prior to being approved and implemented. And we’re working in New York to ensure that the UN Security Council Sanctions Committees play a more active role in advising international organizations on how to remain compliant with UN sanctions.
QUESTION: As a follow-up, what level of cooperation – or how would you characterize the cooperation you’ve received from the UN?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, our review is ongoing so I don’t have any specific details for you at this time.
QUESTION: The issue here is that you’ve got this small UN body violating UN sanctions against North Korea and Iran. I mean, that’s a very serious situation.
MR. VENTRELL: Again, that’s why we’re reviewing this up in New York and we are looking at this very carefully. But in terms of the outcomes of what we’re able to uncover and how we go forward, until that review is complete I don’t have anything further for you. But clearly we take it seriously and we’re looking into it. — State Dept. briefing, July 5, 2012.