Insights From the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea

With the United Nations Panel of Experts (UN POE) on North Korea recently dissolved, Joel Wit, Distinguished Fellow in Asian and Security Studies at the Henry L. Stimson Center and co-founder of 38 North, interviewed Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, who was the finance and economics expert on the Panel from 2015 to 2019.

Joel Wit (JW): Given the recent end of the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea, how do you view the impact of its dissolution?

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt (SKA): The recent Russian veto of the UN Security Council Resolution that sought to extend the mandate of the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea has sent ripples through the global diplomatic community. While the veto does not directly change the existing framework of UN sanctions, the failure to renew the Panel’s mandate—which plays a crucial role in monitoring and reporting on violations of UN sanctions to the Security Council—significantly weakens global oversight and enforcement of these sanctions. This reduction in scrutiny grants Pyongyang a strategic opportunity to advance its nuclear and missile programs, particularly at a time when international focus may be diverted elsewhere.

Furthermore, the disbandment of the Panel underscores a broader pattern of erosion in the essential institutions and norms that support the international order. This weakening is particularly consequential as it undermines the foundational pillars of the global system, enabling countries like North Korea to defy international law and impede efforts to address such violations.

The decline in respect to international norms and institutions is evident in various contexts, from the United States’ repeated vetoes of Security Council resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine to Russia’s blockage of the mandate extension for the UN Panel of Experts. Notably, Russia’s decision to prioritize its national interests over global peace and security reflects a similar stance taken just weeks before by the United States when it vetoed three resolutions aimed at addressing violence against civilians in Gaza. This trend highlights a concerning reality where powerful nations, driven by self-interest, prioritize narrow national interests over maintaining the integrity of international law. This perpetuates a cycle of impunity that erodes the foundational principles of the global legal framework and diminishes the credibility of UN bodies and other multilateral institutions.

JW: What were some of the significant achievements of the Panel when you were a member? Put another way, what is the international community going to lose by not having a Panel?

SKA: With the DPRK continuing to access the international financial system even as it advances its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, it is crucial that the international community both better understand how the DPRK operates with respect to evading sanctions and has a body able to help provide advice and guidance on what steps are needed for better enforcement and implementation. Without the Panel, those capabilities disappear. To provide you with a few examples of what success can look like from my time on the Panel:

Cybertheft: My investigation into North Korea’s cyberattacks aimed at evading sanctions began in 2014. I drafted the first report section on this topic, highlighting how Pyongyang was generating significant revenue through sophisticated cyberattacks on financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges. These operations are marked by low initial investment costs, high returns, challenges in attribution and a lack of effective deterrents. The attacks initially caught global financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges off-guard, and have become a primary method for North Korea to fund its prohibited programs. The capability to carry out such asymmetric operations will likely remain a key strategy for North Korea, emphasizing the need for continuous and robust international monitoring. (For more on this issue, you can see this 38 North article.)

Infiltration of North Korean networks in the global banking system: Another significant area of my investigations focused on how North Korean agents were able to access the international financial system in violation of sanctions to fund illicit activities from various countries in Asia, Southeast Asia, and even Europe. For example, some of these agents managed to become employed within UN agencies in Europe, using their roles to conduct activities to fund North Korea’s weapons programs. Additionally, I uncovered a network of DPRK agents using Chinese banks to conduct hundreds of thousands of transactions. Remarkably, each DPRK national with a single Chinese bank account operated as if it were an entire DPRK bank. This was compounded by a complex web of evasion tactics, including the use of front companies and complicit individuals from various countries to obscure connections and facilitate financial transactions. The UN sanctions require member states to expel any individuals found to be acting on behalf of or directed by a North Korean bank, but convincing them to do so in practice was often quite difficult.

JW: Do you think there are any prospects for reviving the Panel?

SKA: Despite the essential role of the Panel in monitoring such activities, the geopolitical landscape and recent dynamics within the Security Council make reviving it all but impossible. The Russian veto not only demonstrates the Panel’s past effectiveness, but also underscores the challenges of navigating the current political landscape at the UN, where national interests often overshadow collective security concerns.

Furthermore, any alternatives to the Panel, particularly outside the United Nations framework, would lack the necessary credibility, legal authority, and impartiality required for conducting investigations and issuing reports. A non-UN entity would wield considerably less influence than the Panel in advocating for enhanced sanctions implementation.

JW: What were some of the challenges of being on the Panel and being an Independent Expert?

SKA: The work was fraught with complex challenges, from dealing with North Korea’s secretive nature to unraveling its complex sanctions evasion schemes. Political pressures from powerful nations within the Security Council often complicated our efforts, as did the intricate maneuvers by North Korea and its allies to minimize the impact of sanctions.

Achieving political consensus within the Panel was a significant challenge due to the geopolitical sensitivities surrounding North Korea. Despite the expectation of independence, Panel members often faced strong political pressures from Member States, which attempted to get Panel members to align with national positions. However, maintaining impartiality and independence was crucial to the credibility and effectiveness of the Panel. In navigating attempts by Member States to exert influence, Panel members were being asked to make decisions that conflicted with their own governments’ positions, particularly when national policies conflicted with the imperative of maintaining the Panel’s mandate. Panel members who were seconded by their governments understandably were more susceptible to this type of pressure. For my part, I emphasized to Member States that my primary obligation was to remain impartial, aiming to leave all governments “equally unhappy” with the Panel’s findings.

By the end of my tenure on the Panel, in 2019, the independence of the Panel was increasingly being challenged by geopolitical pressures, particularly evident when the US attempted to hire someone who had previously represented the US at the Security Council’s 1718 Committee, which was followed by the Chinese member of the Panel being replaced by an official reporting directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as opposed to an expert from a part of the Chinese government not accountable to the MFA). This change then led other countries to do the same, marking a shift towards greater adherence to national policy during Panel deliberations, diminishing the independence of the Panel’s work.

With regard to US policy on North Korea, the situation was further exacerbated by a broader tendency to deprioritize the significance of North Korea within overall US foreign policy, except during brief periods triggered by events such as nuclear tests or missile launches. Indeed, within diplomatic circles, it has been an open secret that US policy towards North Korea has completely failed to achieve its objectives. This challenge is compounded by the troubling approach taken by the US with North Korea, where sanctions are not just one component within a broader policy framework, but rather the policy itself. Consequently, the failure of sanctions to achieve their objectives correlates with the failure of the entire approach.

JW: But what about your role as the “United States’’ Member of the Panel? Didn’t you carry water for Washington, DC, just as other Panel members did for “their” governments?

SKA: Having not been one of the Panel members seconded directly from my government gave me more leeway to exercise my role as an independent expert, oftentimes to the dismay of the United States Mission to the UN. One instance of this was my authorship of a report section addressing the challenges faced by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in obtaining humanitarian exemptions after new sectoral sanctions were adopted in 2017. Despite the fact that the resolutions mandated that sanctions should not harm the civilian population of the DPRK or hinder the provision of humanitarian assistance by international agencies or NGOs, these stipulations were not effectively upheld by the United States in practice. Nevertheless, the humanitarian impact section of the 2019 report was widely praised by numerous NGOs and almost all governments except for the United States. These governments and organizations recognized the critical need to protect humanitarian assistance from the adverse effects of sanctions, especially considering the scale of needs within the country.

Additionally, after the publication of this report, the process for NGOs and UN agencies to request exemptions from the 1718 Committee of the Security Council, which had previously been marred by significant delays, was notably streamlined. These delays had been spearheaded by the US to retaliate against the Russian and Chinese delays on additions to the sanctions list. This “tit for tat” behavior of countries on the security council was both disappointing and prevalent.

I diverged from the US position again when I spearheaded a major investigation and authored a section of a Panel report to the Security Council regarding the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the Belgium-based financial messaging service. Despite being designated by the UN as sanctioned entities, several North Korean banks were still in the SWIFT network. A lot of time was spent going back and forth with SWIFT on this issue, as the Panel always provides ample opportunity for an entity or individual to come into compliance with UN resolutions before we name them in a public report. Suffice it to say that the institution had no intention of coming into compliance with the resolutions, so I was obliged to include the case in our 2017 report, much to the dismay of Western countries. But, as a result of the significant media attention that was drawn to this case, SWIFT finally ceased its services to sanctioned North Korean banks, and Belgium withdrew its authorization for SWIFT to accept fees from them.

Despite multiple challenges, the Panel generally maintained a high standard of quality in its work. While reports became shorter and more diluted in recent years due to increasing pressure from Member States, this did not compromise the quality of the Panel’s work so much as it reduced the ability to publicly report on many of our efforts. It was possible to save some of this content in the Annexes, which is why the Annexes are often the most interesting part of the Panel’s reports.

JW: Given that the Panel does not seem to have a future at this point, why do you think it is important to set the record straight about its work and activities?

SKA: I do not know what the future may hold for the Panel or the DPRK, but I think it is important to clarify misunderstandings and provide an accurate portrayal of the complexities of managing international sanctions and diplomacy with North Korea. Should there be a path for diplomacy with the DPRK again in the future, it is crucial for the international community to understand the nuanced realities of this work, beyond the oversimplified versions often presented.

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