29 January 2007

Cash for Kim - the story continues

To give the new SecGen of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, his due, he seems at first to have responded reasonably well to the latest UN scandal, the money passed on to North Korea’s Kim Jong-il by the United Nations Development Programme without a great deal of supervision.

I wish I could say that it was this blog that did the trick but, I suspect, it was the probability of a prolonged campaign by the Wall Street Journal that encouraged Mr Ban to pronounce on the subject.

A week ago on Friday Mr Ban’s spokesman announced that the SecGen had met with Ad Melkert, associate administrator of the UNDP (what is he associated with, one wonders) and added:
The Secretary-General will call for an urgent, system wide and external inquiry into all activities done around the globe by the U.N. funds and programmes.
The key word, as the following Monday’s WSJ editorial pointed out, is “external”. We all remember how long it took the previous SecGen, Kofi Annan (father of Kojo and brother of Kobina) to set up the independent Volcker Commission to find out what has been going on in the Oil for Food scam. Admittedly he picked a man whom he had considered to be “reliable” to chair it but, alas, the report was not quite what SecGen Annan had wanted.

The UNDP announced in a letter, published in Monday’s WSJ, that it welcomes “an independent and external audit of our operations in North Korea”. In the same letter, readers were assured that
If the member states of the U.N. and UNDP’s board were to decide that our presence there were no longer useful, we would leave immediately.
Brave words. Unfortunately, one of the members of that board is North Korea itself (it also sits on the board of UNDP’s affiliate, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and if UNICEF as well as being a member of the UN Disarmament Conference. What are the chances of Kim Jong-il’s henchmen (for who else would be sent to negotiate on these august boards) agreeing that the UNDP and its hard cash were no longer wanted in North Korea? One of the many tales of porcine aviation that the UN is so fond of regaling us with.

Meanwhile, the UNDP is twisting and turning. In a press conference last Friday the same Ad Melkert dismissed the problem with the words:
We’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. … Over a period of 10 years it is, of course, tens of millions.
Oh well, that’s all right then. Actually, the sum is $27.7 million and, indeed, it is chickenfeed compared to the Oil for Food scam.

The UNDP also posted a statement on its website, which assured all and sundry that it can account for all but $337,000 of its recent expenditures in North Korea. Of the $6.5 million spent in 2005 – 2006 only that negligible sum went on projects directly managed by the North Korean government. That is not quite accounting for the money but it is a start. It would be useful to know, for instance, how many of the UNDP managed projects work through North Korean officials, whose salaries are paid into a central government fund.

The WSJ is only mildly impressed and rightly so.
If oversight has improved in the past two years, so much the better. In any case, any investigation ought to go back at least to the late 1990s, when an internal audit turned up shenanigans and much more money was spent, and ideally all the way back to 1979, when the programme began.
Indeed, as Jay Lefkowitz, speaking at a recent meeting in the House of Commons, organized by the Henry Jackson Society, pointed out, there are many people who think that the West is responsible for the survival of the North Korean regime through the provision of unquestioning humanitarian aid throughout the nineties.

Of course, going back to the nineties raises all sorts of interesting questions. The editorial continues:
We also couldn’t help but notice the second-day story by the Washington Post’s Colum Lynch whose reporting is known to speak for the U.N. bureaucracy. He said some in U.N. consider the U.S. questions to be an attempt to discredit Mark Malloch Brown, who ran UNDP from 1999 – 2005 before becoming Mr. Annan’s chief of staff. We hadn’t mentioned Mr. Malloch Brown in our Friday editorial, but now that Mr. Lynch does we agree his tenure at UNDP should also be looked at.
I am shocked, shocked to find out that there are journalists out there who simply parrot the UN bureaucracy’s line and are prepared to try to bury any inquiry into the way the UN spends our money by squealing that it is all that nasty Mr Bolton trying to get at that nice Mr Malloch Brown (I beg your pardon, as of this New Year’s Honours List Sir Mark Malloch Brown.)

The latest statement on the UNDP website about the latest board meeting promises all sorts of reforms and proudly announces the various controls that were introduced as of January 2007, by a strange coincidence just as the story was breaking in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Claudia Rosett has also got her teeth into the story. She has some interesting things to tell.
Actually, this scandal points to a great deal more than that [tens of millions], even if Ban focuses for now only on U.N. operations Pyongyang. The UNDP, while serving as co-ordinator for U.N. programmes in Pyongyang, is just one of about half a dozen U.N. agencies that have been operating in North Korea, including UNICEF, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Food Program.

Combined, these agencies have poured close to $2 billion worth of resources into North Korea over the past decade or so, according to U.N. records. They have done this on terms giving Kim big opportunities to divert goods and charge fees for the benefit not of hungry North Koreans, but for his military and his gulag-running, missile-vending, nuclear-bomb-testing regime.
Them are strong words and some people might sniff at the un-BBC-like language. But is there a single word there that is not true? Let us see what else Ms Rosett has managed to find out.

It would appear that the World Food Program is the biggest dispenser of largesse it possesses courtesy of the Western, notably American and British (but also Canadian, Australian and West European) taxpayer.
Since 1995 the WFP, according to its website, [check] has shipped into North Korea more than four million tons of “commodities” – including such goods as rice, wheat and corn – valued by the WFP at $1.7 billion. A big part of this came courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, sent via the U.N. before Kim was busted in 2002 by the Bush administration for cheating on a 1994 aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal signed during the Clinton administration. [See jolly picture above.] For two years after that, the U.S. kept donations coming; then, since 2005 has refused to chip in. But even today North Korea continues to receive millions worth of resources via the WFP. And, the patterns appear disturbingly similar to the UNDP practices now under fire.

In the case of the WFP, Kim Jong-il a little over a year ago gambled – successfully – on a ploy that dramatically reduced the WFP’s already limited ability to check where its aid really went. Kim’s regime declared in late 2005 that North Korea had no more need for direct food aid. But instead of closing up shop in Pyongyang, the WFP negotiated a new deal, which caved in to demands of Kim’s regime. The WFP agreed to cut back on the range and frequency of its monitoring trips and also promised to funnel some of its resources through state-run development projects. Under the label of a “Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation”, the WFP launched this arrangement last year, authorized it to run until March 31, 2008, and called for international contributions worth $102 million.
This is becoming ever less like chickenfeed. The United States is holding off aid, not least because President Bush is on a personal mission to help the people of North Korea and has realized that giving more money to their oppressors is not likely to do so.
With the U.S. still holding off on aid, the WFP, according to a Jan.17 bulletin on its website, has so far garnered only about 16 percent of what it asked for – resources worth $16.3 million. … A WFP spokesman, reached by phone in Bangkok, confirms that a number of the items listed in the Protracted Relief plan under a “project cost breakdown”, represent hard cash paid to the North Korean regime, or to local employees supplied - and vetted by – the Kim government.

Such items include $5 million for transport, storage and handling of the free food shipped in by the WFP; $1.39 million for “staff duty travel” within North Korea, including transportation and state guesthouse lodgings for WFP workers trying to monitor aid; $447,200 for “National consultants”; $106,400 for utilities; and $279,700 for “other office expenses”.

Under the heading of “Staff” there also is an intriguing provision for $321,100 worth of “incentives”. The WFP spokesman explains this is projected funding to let international staff cased in the hardship post of Pyongyang leave the country every six weeks for R&R – a trip that usually involves using hard currency to buy a plane ticket from North Korea’s state-run Air Koryo.
The WFP’s justification for its continuing presence in North Korea and continuing supply of money to the North Korean regime is fascinating. It would appear according to this organization, that “the capacity to import on commercial terms is limited so the country falls short of meeting its minimum needs year after year”. Though, of course, it has no trouble meeting the state’s more than minimum needs for nuclear weaponry.

Exactly why is the country in such a sorry state and why can it not produce sufficient or near-sufficient food itself? After all, South Korea is one of the most successful countries in the region, which manages to produce or import many of its needs.

The WFP has the answer, as far as North Korea is concerned, burbling on about “unfavourable agricultural situation, general economic decline, environmental problems and natural disasters”. Could a political dynasty like that of the Kims be called a “natural disaster”?

In its general account of the situation in North Korea, the WFP remains rather coy as to the causes of the problems, mentioning the government only once, indirectly:
Sharply lower purchasing power compounds the longstanding inability of the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS) to provide enough subsidised cereals to those it supposedly serves: the 70 per cent of the population living in urban areas. In January 2005 there was a declared reduction in rations to an average of 250 grams per person per day – some 40 per cent of the internationally recommended minimum calorie intake – from 300 grams. An ostensible revitalisation of the PDS last October to provide an average of 500 grams a day appears to have had very limited success. It coincided with the imposition of a ban on private trading in cereals that remains in place.
Well, these coincidences do happen, particularly in Communist states.

Going through the, admittedly not very well designed, WFP website, one finds a good deal of self-congratulation, considerably less hard thinking about what might or might not cause hunger and a large measure of complaining about the funds the organizations is not getting.

Given that, it is hard to explain the following information, garnered by Claudia Rosett about Ri Hong-sik, North Korea’s director-general for international organizations:
That same director general currently is spending two weeks in New York, having flown business class at U.N. expense, along with two of his official cohorts from Pyongyang, for meetings of the 36-member executive boards of the UNDP/UNFPA and UNICEF.

When the U.S. Mission’s envoy for U.N. reform, Mark Wallace, pressed the UNDP recently for details of this North Korean jaunt to New York City, the UNDP reluctantly produced the information that the U.N. agencies in question were paying more than $35,000 for the roundtrip travel of the North Korean trio.

Interestingly, no other UNDP executive board members are getting this kind of subsidy. The UNDP has argued that this kind of subsidized air travel has happened before, but the case the organization cites is Afghanistan in 2002, after the collapse of the Taliban, when the Afghan government essentially was in U.N. hands. The UNDP has since said it is revising its policy to require member states to foot the bills for sending their officials to board meetings.

What of Ban Ki-moon in all of this? Is he still going ahead with the external auditing of the programme. Sadly, he seems to have backtracked. On Thursday Ms Rosett and George Russell were writing this:
But by Monday, Ban was backtracking faster than you can say “ACABQ” — which is the acronym for the U.N. General Assembly’s own budget oversight body, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions — which Ban was suddenly proposing to use as the overseer of his promised housecleaning.

To call that a huge step backward would be understatement. Among other things, the former chairman of the ACABQ, Vladimir Kuznetsov, was one of two U.N. officials indicted in 2005 on charges of bribery and money-laundering in connection with a highly publicized U.N. procurement scandal. (One, Alexander Yakovlev, pleaded guilty. Kuznetsov has pleaded not guilty, and goes on trial next month in New York federal court).

It was during the time that Kuznetsov held his U.N. budget oversight job that illicit funds were allegedly passing through his secret Caribbean bank account. Somehow, his alleged crimes escaped the ACABQ’s attention.

It is this same ACABQ that Ban now proposes to use as a conduit for handling the inspection of the UNDP’s North Korean unit, which will be carried out not by a truly independent outside auditing firm, but by using the U.N.’s own “external auditors.”
Business as usual, then.

Mind you, that nasty Republican administration that is chary of handing over money to various tranzis to be spent on yet more oppressive tyrants’ well-being, seems to have dug its heels in on North Korea. According to Jay Lefkowitz, US Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, this is entirely the President’s doing. It seems that Bush has met one or two of the few who have been fortunate enough to escape from that hell-hole and listened to them. One and all, these people say the same thing: do not send any more money to North Korea; it will do nothing but keep Kim Jong-il wealthy and the country poverty stricken, though well armed.

Mr Lefkowitz’s talk, delivered in the House of Commons on January 24 was extremely interesting but not as ground-breaking as it was billed. It is always worth rehearsing the horrors of North Korea and the corruption of its rulers and officials. In fact, the best thing we, in the West, can do to help those who live under such spectacularly oppressive regimes is to talk about it, write about it, spread the information.

If the policy Mr Lefkowitz was outlining will continue, the United States will insist that the money they might contribute definitely goes to the people of North Korea and will not be used for the perpetuation of the regime. The present demands of proper accountability from UNDP and refusal to fund the WFP extravaganza are good beginnings.

But, of course, for that plan to work, other countries and organizations must join the US. This was the ground-breaking idea that the speaker produced: Britain and European countries in general must insist that their money helps the people of North Korea. The UN must do the same. He thought the augurs were good as the EU (well, its member states) had been instrumental in ensuring that the UN resolution condemning North Korea was actually passed. Sadly, it made no difference.

Furthermore, the European Parliament, he said has passed a resolution (probably more than one) in which it condemned North Korea. I must admit that at that point I began to wilt. Who on earth cares what the European Parliament says or does not say? This is not the Helsinki Agreement.

Still, there were one or two useful points. The United States government will now accept North Korean refugees with no conditions. Its diplomats and officials have been instructed to insist on the right to talk to North Korean people in many different conditions and circumstances. It is not clear whether that has worked so far.

Mr Lefkowitz thought that European diplomats should follow suit. Hmm, I can just see the FCO, which was usually wary of getting anywhere near Soviet dissidents, risking trouble in North Korea.

The BBC, he added, should join Voice of America in broadcasting to the country. Now, that would be a good thing. I say “would” because I cannot quite work out whether the BBC does or does not. It certainly has no Korean language website, which would indicate not.

Above all, Mr Lefkowitz repeated several times, all of us must promote the cause of the few North Korean refugees and even fewer dissidents. Well, there might be more than we think but we know nothing about what goes on in the country.

The discussion afterwards went along reasonably predictable lines with a number of people wanting to know about China’s present and possible future role in the whole story. Some asked whether it was not a really bad idea to use emotive language like “axis of evil”. I remember when people thought that Reagan was off his trolley when he called the Soviet Union “the evil empire”. Mr Lefkowitz explained that the language made no difference (if these people only knew what sort of language the North Korean media uses) and emphasis on human rights have, on various occasions, brought the North Koreans back to the negotiating table.

One lady rather depressed me as soon as she began to speak. Explaining that she was from some quango she thanked the speaker for his talk as she had not known much about the North Korean government “per se”. Anybody who uses that expression so inappropriately is going to come up with something very stupid. And she did. She asked whether it was not better to use carrots than sticks with North Koreans to achieve any progress on either the nuclear or the human rights front. Could Mr Lefkowitz not explain that to President Bush?

Mr Lefkowitz showed remarkable forbearance and self-control in that he did not tell the lady that huge cartloads of carrots had poured into North Korea under President Clinton. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il crunched their way through them all while starving the people and building nuclear weapons.

The man sitting next to the “per se” lady turned out to have grown up in the Soviet Union and was, therefore, considerably more knowledgeable on the subject of totalitarianism. He dismissed all comparisons with the USSR, Romania or Eastern Europe. North Korea was like the Soviet Union in the thirties not the eighties. Little enough could have been done about Stalin’s country.

After his death there was a gradual relaxation and that led to the eventual collapse, though one other important factor must be taken into consideration: Reagan’s insistence on SDI, popularly known as Star Wars. That’s what made Gorbachev launch an attempted massive reform, which led to the destruction of the system. What, he wanted to know, was the equivalent with North Korea? (Interestingly, I saw a lot of nodding heads in response to his comments about Star Wars, many of them very young ones.)

Mr Lefkowitz talked of the need to balance sticks and carrots. He is, of course, the man who has to deal with the almost insoluble problem: how do we in the free(ish) and affluent West help those countries where the people are hungry and suffering as a result of the political system imposed on them.

On the one hand, it is hard to look at pictures of starving children and not want to do something to help. That is the usual reaction and there are many organizations in the world, such as the WFP who benefit from this impulse.

On the other hand, it is almost axiomatic that the money, food and other supplies will go to the oppressive rulers who have caused the misery in the first place and will be used for further oppression.

Not giving aid to North Korea or, say, Sudan is the only possible weapon the West has. If we are serious about wanting to solve the problems in these countries, we shall have to harden our hearts in the short term.