Book Review: “North Korean Nuclear Funding Sources: A Secret Record of ‘UN Investigations’”

北朝鮮核の資金源:「国連操作」秘録 (Kitachosen kaku no shikingen: ‘Kokuren sosa’ hiroku[1])

By Katsuhisa Furukawa. Shinchosha, 2017. 463 pp.[2]

Japanese Cover of “North Korean Nuclear Funding Sources: A Secret Record of ‘UN Investigations'” by Katsuhisa Furukawa.

How has the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in the face of more than a decade of multilateral United Nations (UN) sanctions against entities and individuals of the Pyongyang regime, as well as sanctions levied unilaterally by a number of the world’s major powers, made advances over the years in developing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic materials (ICBMs) capable of striking the continental United States? Katsuhisa Furukawa, a former UN employee and the author of this book, writes that numerous loopholes have allowed Pyongyang to progress in developing nuclear weapons. As the title suggests, Furukawa offers readers his insider’s view of the difficulties encountered in investigating violations of these sanctions.

Author’s Background

Born in Singapore in 1966, Katsuhisa Furukawa earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Japan’s prestigious Keio University in 1990, a master’s in international security policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School in 1998 and a doctoral degree in international relations in 2012 from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo. He has worked in the United States as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He returned to Japan to work at the Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX) from 2004 to 2011, and then for the next five years worked at the United Nations Headquarters as a member of the Panel of Experts (PoE), which was established in 2009 for matters pertaining to sanctions against the DPRK. After working at the United Nations, Furukawa joined the Open Nuclear Network (ONN) of the One Earth Future Foundation. He has been the recipient of his publisher’s Shincho Documentary Prize (2018) and the Fujisankei Communication Group’s Seiron Award (2020).[3]

Political Considerations

The UN Security Council’s PoE, which Furukawa was a member of, is comprised of a coordinator and seven members with one from each of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK). It was established to conduct investigations and submit reports pursuant to the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee.[4] Furukawa describes Beijing and Moscow as being reluctant to impose sanctions on Pyongyang, uncooperative in responding to the PoE’s requests for information on DPRK activities in their countries, and in implementing UN sanctions. He writes that in regard to a PoE investigation of the network of companies tied to the DPRK’s Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) in China, Beijing would not provide even a single photograph or passport number of any of the Chinese nationals suspected of violating sanctions (144). Beijing’s insistence on the “One China” policy also hindered investigations by precluding the PoE from officially approaching Taipei for information. Russia, according to the author, was uncooperative and tended to accuse the PoE of conducting investigations “beyond its authority” (218). At one point, Furukawa details how China and Russia permitted a shipping company that had been reported to the Security Council to continue business in their countries because Pyongyang changed the names of the ships and re-registered them to new companies (367-371).

Furukawa portrays panel members acting less as employees of an international organization than as agents of their respective countries. He saw himself and his activist colleagues from the United States, Britain, France and the ROK as being pitted against the obstructionist Chinese and Russian members. The author writes that apart from Tokyo, the relative lack of ardor from within the activist camp for vigorously enforcing the ban against luxury goods for Pyongyang “affected” the PoE’s efforts in that regard (33). Furukawa recalls rushing back to New York in June 2012, in possession of inside information obtained in Tokyo. He called together only three other trusted colleagues, excluding the Chinese and Russian members of the PoE, for a confidential meeting on the rooftop of UN Headquarters to brief them and ask for their cooperation in plotting a course of action (64).[5]

Targets of Investigation, Sources of Concern

In his book, Furukawa writes at length of various cases he handled, the majority of which were tied to the DPRK’s KOMID, Green Pine Associated Corporation, Ocean Maritime Management Co., Ltd. (OMM) and the myriad of associated front companies around the world involved in the banned export and import of items linked to Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons. Trade in chemical and conventional weapons—from items linked to chemical weapons going to Syria to Soviet-era conventional arms “sweeping” the Middle East and Africa—were also targets of his investigations. Furukawa traveled the globe in pursuit of information, seeking details on the local North Korean connection from a general in Ethiopia, examining documents in the detained cargo ship Mudubong (Mu Du Bong) in Mexico and entering a building in Malaysia in search of a Glocom office.

In addition to the cargoes shipped in and out of DPRK ports, the author also writes of his concern regarding Pyongyang’s acquisition of knowledge applicable to WMD programs. Furukawa notes with some alarm that Pyongyang has gathered technical information over the years by sending people to the following: Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR); the library of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria; India’s Center for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP); and advanced studies for graduate students at universities in China and Europe.

Furukawa also points with concern to what he sees as Japan’s lack of a proper legal framework for acting against violations of sanctions (88). The author points to the perennial problem of “stovepiping” in the Japanese government, weak in inter-agency coordination and top-down direction. In one example, he contrasts the ability of other governments to send unified delegations to the United Nations with the disarray he perceived in his country’s own government. One telling moment for the author was when Tokyo, having vigorously lobbied Mexico City against releasing the detained Mudubong, later lets go a suspect North Korean ship from a Japanese port for lack of a legal basis for freezing the assets of sanctions violators (376).

Adding Flesh to the Bone, Exploiting Sources and Methods

In his book, Furukawa provides readers a lively account of his work at the United Nations, adding flesh to the bone for findings published earlier in the PoE’s annual reports to the Security Council.[6] Writing for a general audience, the author sets scenes at the start of chapters and subsections with such openers as Chapter 1’s “October 2011: New York” and Chapter 13’s “A certain day, July 2014: A PoE colleague suddenly whispered the following to me.”[7] Furukawa shares his highs and lows in dealing with governments and colleagues, writes of ailments and exhaustion that beset him due to working overtime, takes readers on overseas investigations and names Manhattan Japanese restaurants where he dined. Colorful passages include the one in which he and his French PoE colleague “dissect” a Soviet SCUD missile at the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation in California to compare its parts to those found in the cargo of a detained ship (177). With such writing, the author turns the often-dry topic of sanctions into a rousing tale of one man’s efforts against North Korea’s development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

Since the PoE’s findings appear each year as public reports to the UN Security Council, the author’s references to exploiting sources and methods are of particular relevance. Early in the book, Furukawa declares that open sources of information accounted for ninety percent of the facts gathered in his investigations (34).[8] For the next 400 pages, he identifies a great many of them. He consistently references back to investigations in Japanese newspapers and television, and to the media-connected Asian Affairs Research Council. In his investigations, he discovered that corporate and organization websites pointed to suspect enterprises and sanctioned activities. Facebook and YouTube also proved to be fonts of information.

In his investigations of North Korean networks, Furukawa points to the vexing problems that foreign languages pose. For example, the author suggests that a company in North Korea’s network that reported the export of goods from Japan to a “Namcheongang Trading Corporation,” whose name closely resembles that of the sanctioned Namchongang Trading Corporation, may have been practicing deception (147). He writes that changing the spelling of a company’s name is a common DPRK tactic to evade sanctions. However, the change of a letter may have to do with the ROK’s official transliteration system, which renders ”Namchongang” as “Namcheongang” (남천강). In another investigation that Furukawa conducted, in which he failed to communicate by telephone with a local employee of the Taiwan branch of a Japanese corporation, the author reflects on the language barrier and imagines that “a rather different world would be visible” to him if he could only use Chinese in his investigations (231). According to him, one problem involving Chinese is that the DPRK’s Korea Millim Technology Corporation, for example, which operates in China, does not have an English version of its name, whereas the United States and other Western countries only release the names of Korean persons and entities in English (240).[9]

Weak and Strong Points

The book was published for a general audience, written in a lively writing style and packed with personal anecdotes. However, because of this, it falls short in presenting evidence, as the author is often short on details. For example, Furukawa vaguely describes, but does not identify, the group of visitors to Tokyo’s Big Sight for the 2010 Japan International Machine Tool Fair (JIMTOF)—one of the world’s foremost exhibitions of advanced machine tool technology. This lack of information is significant because the members of this group, while residents in Japan, gathered scientific and technological information to contribute to the DPRK’s development (215-216). In a book with multiple references to Pyongyang’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), one entire page is given over to an organization chart that links Green Pine Associated Corporation, which is at the bottom of the chart, to Kim Jong Un, “supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army,” who is at the top of the chart, via the RGB (83). However, no source of information is ever given for this chart. In yet another example, the author notes that Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation continued to advertise its wares “in multiple languages” even after its designation for sanctions in January 2013, without divulging where he saw those advertisements.[10] Whether details were scrubbed in the editorial and presumably a legal review process is unclear. Moreover, as is common with most Japanese paperbacks published for a general audience, the book has no bibliography, footnotes or index.[11]

The book is particularly short on details involving Japan. Reflecting what is a probable sensitivity on the part of the author and/or his publisher to lawsuits or other problems, the book avoids naming names. For example, Furukawa resorts in various parts of the book to vague terms like: “a certain government,” “the Taiwan branch company of a Japanese company” and Japanese companies “E” and “F.”[12] He also shows discretion in mentioning the actual names of individuals whom he merely describes in some cases as an “acquaintance” or a “friend” who pass him information for his investigations.

A third weak point is that the author is incomplete in his claims and at times, in my opinion, even completely off the mark in a few places. Early in the book, Furukawa posits that Pyongyang embarked on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles as a counter to its “international isolation,” rather than nuclear deterrence as the driving motive (26).[13] Later in the book, the author describes the merit of an imported transporter erector launcher (TEL) with off-road capabilities giving Pyongyang the ability to launch ICBMs in a surprise attack (53). However, he fails to mention that the primary advantage of having such vehicles for a power as weak as the DPRK is the enhanced survivability of its ICBMs against the strikes of a far stronger power, such as the United States or China.[14] Further on in the book, he writes of the “outflow” of information and technology on “advanced machine tools” from Japan to North Korea during the Cold War as if it had been some kind of leak or theft, while neglecting to mention that the DPRK was a prime market for Japanese exports of machine tools and other machinery for much of that era. (216)[15]


  1. [1]

    The title of the book under review here points to a problem that plagues investigations into Pyongyang’s violations of UN sanctions­–transliteration. Different transliterations for Korean, Japanese and Chinese names result in confusion. In the book’s Japanese title, the Library of Congress transliterates the name for North Korea as two words, Kita Chosen, whereas the librarians at Columbia University and elsewhere use the single word Kitachosen. Even more confusing are the variations that occur in various countries due to their different transliteration systems for Korean names used in the United States, the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Japan, China and Russia, where DPRK leader Kim Jong Un’s name is transliterated differently in each country’s language.

  2. [2]

    Korean and Japanese names in this review are written in the traditional way, with surnames preceding given names. Korean names are written in Pyongyang’s version of the conventional McCune-Reischauer transliteration system.

  3. [3]

    Furukawa’s curriculum vitae, with the exception of the information on his GRIPS doctoral degree and his work after leaving the United Nations, is on the rear sleeve of the book’s bibliographic information page and its promotional band. Information on his Ph.D. is found via the GRIPS website at www.grips.ac.jp. Regarding the ONN, see the Foundation’s website at https://oneearthfuture.org.

  4. [4]

    The name refers to UN Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006 to levy commercial and economic sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s first nuclear test conducted earlier that month.

  5. [5]

    Furukawa writes of choosing the rooftop for that meeting because he believed UN offices to be bugged.

  6. [6]

    Those wishing to read the PoE reports signed by Furukawa may find them, as well as previous and subsequent ones, at https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1718/panel_experts/reports.

  7. [7]

    The translations in this review are my own.

  8. [8]

    Open sources of information are also known as “open sources of intelligence” (OSINT).

  9. [9]

    Korea Millim Technology Corporation (朝鲜密林技术会社 (C), 조선리림기술회사 (K)), another name for Pyongyang’s sanctioned Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, illustrates the problem of tracking Korean persons and entities across borders. A researcher literate in Chinese may, without context, translate it from that language as Korea Milin Technology Corporation. Other researchers and analysts without knowledge of Chinese or Korean, may then mistake the two transliterations of that one entity for two different companies.

  10. [10]

    He is almost certainly referring to the journal Foreign Trade of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, published quarterly in English, Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian and Spanish.

  11. [11]

    A common preference of Japanese publishers.

  12. [12]

    Despite the arrest and public trials of executives from companies “E” and “F,” Furukawa (or his publisher) refrains from identifying them. The book also includes references to unidentified Japanese companies “A” through “D.”

  13. [13]

    Pyongyang’s nuclear program began in the 1950s, following Washington’s threat to use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War. By the 1960s, Pyongyang was showing clear interest in developing its own nuclear deterrent. This was demonstrated when a visiting delegation from Pyongyang made a request in 1964 that Beijing share its data for building a bomb. Pyongyang engaged in all this activity throughout the Cold War, when, as a member of the Communist Bloc and the international Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it was far from existing in a state of “international isolation,” as Furukawa puts it. See Joel S. Wit et al., Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2005, paperback edition), 1-6. For another source, see Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea (Oxford University Press, 2013), 146-149.

  14. [14]

    For an article referring to Pyongyang’s off-road TEL improving missile survivability, see Duyeon Kim and Melissa Hanham, “North Korean missiles: Size does not matter,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 15, 2019, https://thebulletin.org/2019/05/north-korean-missiles-size-does-not-matter/.

  15. [15]

    In 1968, North Korea was the sixth largest foreign market for exports of Japanese machine tools. See Ha Sin Gi, Shogen: “Kita” bijinesu ura gaiko; Kin Seinichi to Inayama Yoshihiro, Koizumi, Kanemaru wo tsunagu mono [Testimony: The Back-Door Diplomacy of Business with the “North”; What Connects Kim Jong Il With Yoshihiro Inayama, Koizumi, and Kanemaru] (Kodansha, 2008), 114.


Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea