• REUTERS

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North Korea continued developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs during the first half of 2021 in violation of international sanctions and despite the country’s worsening economic situation, according to an excerpt of a confidential United Nations report seen by Reuters on Friday.

The report by a panel of independent sanctions monitors to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee said Pyongyang “continued to seek material and technology for these programs overseas.”

“Despite the country’s focus on its worsening economic travails, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continued to maintain and develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes,” the sanctions monitors concluded.

North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the U.N. report.

The isolated Asian nation imposed a strict lockdown last year amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slashed its trade and aid access, hurting an economy already burdened by international sanctions.

In June, leader Kim Jong Un said the country faced a “tense” food situation and much would depend on this year’s harvests.

“Statements made by DPRK suggested a deepening humanitarian crisis in the country, although the COVID-19 blockade means that the relative impact of sanctions on the humanitarian situation has probably decreased,” the U.N. monitors wrote.

“With trade all but stopped by the blockade, and last year’s harvest badly affected by floods, the current prospects of the wider DPRK population are poor,” they said.

North Korea has been subjected to U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Security Council has steadily strengthened sanctions in a bid to cut off funding for the programs.

Among the sanctions imposed are a ban on the export of coal and other commodities and the import of oil.

“Maritime exports from DPRK of coal and other sanctioned commodities continued, but at a much reduced level. The import of oil products reported to the panel fell substantially in the first half of the year,” according to the U.N. report.

Pyongyang also continued to access international financial institutions and North Korean workers continued to earn money overseas for use in state programs, said the U.N. sanctions monitors, adding: “Officials overseas continued to feel pressure to develop revenue streams.”

The monitors said they were continuing to investigate North Korea’s involvement in global cyberactivity and collaboration by North Korean academics and universities with scientific institutes abroad, “focusing on studies with potential applications in WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programmes.”

The U.N. sanctions monitors have previously reported that North Korea has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars using cyberattacks.

Also Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong discussed efforts to engage with North Korea, including the prospect of humanitarian aid, their offices said.

While the allies both want North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and end its missile program, they have at times disagreed on the approach, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in keen to build economic ties between the two Koreas while the United States has long insisted on action on denuclearization as a first step.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement on the call between Blinken and Chung, said they had agreed to hold detailed discussions on ways to cooperate with North Korea, including humanitarian cooperation, and continue to make efforts to engage with it.

“The secretary and the minister agreed to continue the coordinated diplomatic efforts … to make substantial progress toward the goal of complete denuclearization and establishment of lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula,” the ministry said.

Blinken confirmed U.S. support for dialogue and engagement between North Korea and South Korea, the U.S. Department of State said in a statement.

Last week, the two Koreas restored hotlines that North Korea severed a year ago and South Korean officials said Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were seeking to repair strained ties and resume summits.

According to South Korean lawmakers, North Korea is seeking some easing of international sanctions before it resumes negotiations with the United States. But the United States has shown little inclination to ease sanctions before talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Nevertheless, South Korea officials have been encouraged by a declaration by the Biden administration, which earlier this year concluded a review of North Korea policy, that it would pursue “practical” diplomacy with North Korea.

About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula in a technical state of war.

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