By Sang-Min Kim
Despite international sanctions, North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs with the help of an expanding array of illicit financial networks, according to a February report by a UN Security Council panel of experts.
North Korea is engaged in a wide range of cyberoperations that have targeted financial institutions and defense industries, as well as conducting ship-to-ship transfers of oil and coal, all in violation of Security Council mandates, the report said.
Established by Security Council Resolution 1874 in 2009, the experts panel investigates and reports on violations of sanctions imposed by the council. The report was the product of a six-month investigation, which began in August 2020, of the international sanctions imposed on North Korea because of its weapons of mass destruction programs.
The panel found that North Korea has tapped into illicit maritime networks, such as those near China and Taiwan, that allow Pyongyang to import refined petroleum products and crude oil and to export revenue-generating coal and other items.
In the first nine months of 2020, North Korea “exceeded by several times” the annual 500,000-barrel cap on sanctioned imports by receiving at least 121 shipments of refined petroleum products. The panel also found that North Korea exported 2.5 million tons of coal during the same months via at least 400 shipments through Chinese territorial waters.
Meanwhile, the North Korean General Reconnaissance Bureau, the country’s primary foreign intelligence service, used cybergroups such as Lazarus to conduct cybercampaigns against financial institutions, virtual assets, virtual asset service providers, and defense industries in Israel and Europe. In 2019–2020, North Korea allegedly committed cybertheft of up to $316 million.
The panel also concluded that North Korea continued to expand its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which encompasses various facilities central to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, continued to construct a light-water reactor and to operate a uranium dioxide-production building and a five-megawatt electrical reactor, capable of producing seven kilograms of plutonium annually. The report documented that the uranium-enrichment facility in Yongbyon “was operating,” according to an unidentified state member of the Security Council.
The report said North Korea appeared to be maintaining access to the Punggye-ri test site, where it had demolished the testing tunnels in 2018. The surrounding roads and bridges, recently damaged by typhoons, have been reconstructed. The report found that, at the Pyongsan uranium mine complex, new infrastructure has been constructed, and buildings have been modernized.
The panel received information from an unidentified state member of the Security Council alleging cooperation between North Korea and Iran on long-range missile projects. Korea Mining and Development Trading Corp., North Korea’s primary arms dealer, and Shahid Hemat Industrial Group, the organization responsible for Iran’s liquid-fueled ballistic missile program, were involved in the transfer of critical parts such as valves, electronics, and measuring equipment and the sharing of missile specialists, the report said.
Iran rejected the claim, saying a “preliminary review of the information provided to us by the [p]anel indicates that false information and fabricated data may have been used in investigations and analyses of the [p]anel.”
The panel made 29 recommendations on improving enforcement and implementation of sanctions on North Korea.