October 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

UN Report Highlights How North Korea’s Embassies Help Pyongyang Flout Sanctions

October 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

UN Report Highlights How North Korea’s Embassies Help Pyongyang Flout Sanctions

A UN Panel of Experts evaluating international enforcement of North Korea sanctions publicly released its August 2020 report on Monday. Among other findings, the report appropriately emphasized the critical role that North Korea’s embassies and diplomatic missions play in Pyongyang’s sanctions-busting schemes.

The UN Panel report, mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1718, shares evidence of North Korea’s continuing use of deceptive shipping and business practices to trade sanctioned goods such as oil, petroleum products, coal, luxury goods, and weapons. The Panel noted that the total number of shipments seemingly decreased since 2019, likely due to North Korea’s forced border closures in response to COVID-19.

However, the report found that even with fewer shipments, Pyongyang maintained similar trade volumes for certain goods, such as petroleum products. Since the North Koreans started using larger tankers, they were able to reduce the number of petroleum shipments while maintaining a constant volume of trade between January and May.

The Kim regime also continues to extract revenue from the wages of overseas workers in countries such as China, Russia, Laos, and Syria. This violates UN Security Council Resolution 2397, which required all UN member states to repatriate North Korean workers by the end of 2019. Additionally, the report discussed how North Korea continues to conduct cyberattacks on banks and cryptocurrency exchanges to steal and launder funds.

Along with these findings, the Panel highlighted the key role Pyongyang’s diplomats and embassies play in these prohibited activities. While prior UN Panel reports have consistently provided detailed accounts of how North Korean diplomats support illicit activity, this was the first time the Panel devoted a section exclusively to the “misuse of embassy properties” as an area of concern.

Specific examples provided included how the North Korean embassies in Germany, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria supported complicit local businesses on their premises. While the German and Polish governments reported to the Panel that all North Korean business activity stopped by May 2020, the Panel noted that Romania’s and Bulgaria’s governments have yet to reply to the Panel’s inquiries.

The UN panel also discussed how in 2015 North Korean diplomats in Brazil helped the sanctioned North Korean shipping company Ocean Maritime Management conduct an illegal transfer of weapons from North Korea to Cuba. Similarly, the North Korean embassy in China supported a front company selling Pyongyang material critical for nuclear weapons development. This company served as an intermediary for Green Pine Associated Corporation, a North Korean company responsible for Pyongyang’s weapon sales that is now sanctioned by the United States and United Nations.

North Korea currently has 47 embassies around the world. To prevent Pyongyang from continuing to evade sanctions, these 47 states should act upon this report’s recommendation to be “alert to possible efforts by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea diplomatic missions to use their property for extracting illegal revenues.”

In 2017, the U.S. State Department led a successful diplomatic campaign to encourage more than 20 countries to expel North Korean diplomats and/or curb bilateral commercial activity with Pyongyang to resolve this vulnerability. Unfortunately, after North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un began his diplomatic outreach to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump in 2018, the American pressure campaign against North Korean embassies completely evaporated.

To break the current deadlock in diplomacy with North Korea, the U.S. government should revive this earlier campaign to encourage states hosting North Korean embassies to investigate the activities of these facilities to ensure that sanctions are enforced. If states discover illicit activities, they should impose penalties such as the expulsion of diplomats. Diplomatic isolation will be essential not only for augmenting economic pressure, but also for changing the Kim regime’s strategic calculus.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Mathew and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Cyber International Organizations Military and Political Power North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance