Commentary Magazine


Bureaucracy 101

A college course could be built around the new UN report on North Korea’s continuing proliferation activities. The report, released on Friday, was ready for publication in May 2010 but was delayed for six months by China’s Security Council veto. That veto having been lifted, the report is now available to the public.

The news stories surrounding the report are focused on North Korea’s attempts to ship weapons and their components to Iran and Syria, in the months after the “tough” sanctions adopted by the UN in mid-2009. (Pyongyang’s underground nuclear test in May 2009 prompted the newest sanctions.) The UN report cites four instances of cargo being interdicted by other nations, including episodes in Thailand and the UAE that were widely reported in the Western media.

But the real story in this report is its dryly precise account of the implementation of sanctions. As of April 30, 2010, for example, the panel compiling the report found that only 48 UN member nations had submitted their “national implementation reports” for the provisions of the 2009 round of sanctions. The national reports, according to the panel, “vary considerably in content, detail, and format.” The panel acknowledges that this is at least partly because the original UN resolutions didn’t specify that certain significant measures be reported (e.g., withholding pier services from North Korean ships or refusing training to North Korean specialists).

The UN panel observes – without editorializing – that North Korea basically remains free to operate shell companies in a number of other nations. As outside investment in North Korea declines, however, Pyongyang’s economic reliance on China is growing. It’s evident from the incidents recounted in the report that the typical maritime shipment of prohibited cargo from North Korea makes its first stop in China – but the report doesn’t explicitly make that point.

It does, on the other hand, convey the good news that vigilant officials in Japan and Italy have been able to prevent the delivery of two yachts, four Mercedes-Benzes, and 37 pianos to North Korea. Unfortunately, these are rare instances; the UN panel states, on a regretful note, that the interdiction of luxury goods “continues to lag.” In general, successful interdiction of goods both into and out of North Korea is hampered, in the panel’s view, by a lack of uniformity in shipping documentation and the lack of a single, all-encompassing list of prohibited items. Apparently, member states have to consult multiple lists to determine what is prohibited.

The wonder here is that any cargo interdiction happens at all. The bottom line is something we knew already: G-8 governments are acting with some level of vigilance, but there are big, unplugged holes in the sanctions; China is an unacknowledged vulnerability; and there are large swaths of territory in Asia and Africa where no attempt at enforcement is being made. This is our approach, as a collective of nations, to preventing the proliferation of WMD.