North Korea tried to arm Houthis and defied UN sanctions on nuclear programme

Report lays bare Kim Jong-un's intricate money network in Middle East after failed US summit

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un is seen at the President Palace, Friday, March 1, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam. Kim Jong-un is on a two-day official visit to Vietnam that will conclude on March 2. (AP Photo Minh Hoang, Pool)
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North Korea used a Syrian arms dealer to try to supply weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, a United Nations report shows.

It says the weapons sales were just one part of Pyongyang's illicit money-making schemes in the Middle East and Africa to keep Kim Jong-un's regime afloat.

A panel of experts said Mr Kim's nuclear programme, the subject of talks with the US, is unaltered and that UN sanctions designed to hobble the North's finances are being circumvented.

The findings – including satellite images, documents and lists of people involved – lay bare an illegal network that delivers millions of dollars for Mr Kim and his inner circle.

The experts' conclusions also show the difficulties of countering such activities.

The North uses its diplomats as mules to ferry money, with envoys travelling under fake names to avoid being detected on UN blacklists.

Some rely on their diplomatic cover and that of their families to open and control bank accounts in countries, including nations in which they are not accredited.

Information provided to the panel by Japan, South Korea, Britain and the US showed sanctions passed by the UN Security Council in 2017, after the North increased its nuclear and ballistic missile testing, are not working.

“The nuclear and ballistic missile programmes of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remain intact and the country continues to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal,” said a summary of the panel's report, formally released on Tuesday.

“These violations render the latest UN sanctions ineffective.”

The sanctions were passed after heavy lobbying at the Security Council by Nikki Haley, then US permanent representative to the UN. She quit the post at the end of last year.

US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim met last month in Hanoi in a second summit aimed at persuading the North to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons in return for an eventual full lifting of sanctions.

The talks collapsed early on the second day with no agreement or sign of progress.

The UN report criticised member states for lax controls and inadequate monitoring that allowed North Korea to effectively bypass the sanctions.

It also contains evidence of bribery of port officials and company employees to make sure money was passed through shadow companies and bank accounts that lead back to North Korea.

Many institutions, including global shipping companies, were unwitting participants.

But it was in the Middle East and Africa that lesser known elements of the regime's activities surfaced.

The North “continues to violate the arms embargo and has attempted to supply small arms, light weapons and other equipment to Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as to Libya and the Sudan, through foreign intermediaries", the panel said.

One such person was a Syrian arms trafficker named Hussein Al Ali, who the report says dealt with the Houthis.

Investigations are continuing into other attempts to sell "a wide range of military equipment to armed groups and governments in the Middle East and Africa".

North Korean diplomats based in Tehran in 2015 and 2016 boarded 282 flights between the Iranian capital and the UAE, returning within a few hours of their arrival.

Such travel “was indicative of cash couriers”, the 400-page report said.

And in war-torn Syria, the panel said there were investigations continuing into prohibited activities involving North Korea.

In one example, three people described as technicians travelled to Damascus in 2016 and 2017 to work for Syrian defence factories, in trips that the UN was only told of in 2018.

Yang Kyong-song, Kim Jong-gil and Kim Thae-hyon were greeted on arrival by Col Samer Haydar, a member of the air defence department of the Syria armed forces.