Most of you probably have never heard of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency based in Geneva, Switzerland dedicated to promoting “innovation and creativity for the economic, social and cultural development of all countries”—including the DPRK—“through a balanced and effective international intellectual property system.” Back in April Fox News reported on the basis of leaked internal messages that some within the organization were concerned that agency exports of computer equipment to North Korea might violate sanctions imposed on the country by the UN Security Council. The equipment was being sent to the United Nations Development Program which has an office in Pyongyang in connection to technical assistance on fostering innovation and property rights protection. According to a recent post on Martyn Williams’ excellent North Korea Tech blog, “a string of emails began with notice from the UN Development Program office in Beijing to WIPO informing the organization that Bank of America had blocked a US$52,638 payment for the computer equipment based on U.S. sanctions. A conversation between WIPO staff ensued that showed a general lack of clarity on whether the shipment was covered by the sanctions and concluded with this advice from Berenice Bessiere, directory of WIPO’s procurement division: “Regarding our transaction to North Korea and the payments difficulties we have, I would like to share the below message from OLC that basically is recommending to cancel the whole operation to the benefit of North Korea.” The WIPO Staff Association subsequently indicated that it was WIPO Staff Association that said it was “extremely concerned by the fact that WIPO staff may be implementing a project in violation of two UN Security Council Resolutions.”
Now the US government is getting into the act. The State Department has announced that it is looking into the computer equipment exports. Not to be outdone, energetic House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl) announced her committee will also investigate, releasing a statement reading in part “The revelation that a UN agency has been supplying the brutal regimes in Iran and North Korea with sensitive technology is deeply disturbing, and must be thoroughly investigated. Providing these thugs with sensitive technology has the potential to enable their dangerous agendas. This serious offense cannot go overlooked or unpunished.” She goes on to excoriate the UN for coddling dictators and castigate the Obama Administration for not doing more to reform the organization.
For its part, WIPO insists that the equipment that it provided was not covered by the sanctions and is cooperating with the investigations. The low price tag for the offending equipment–$52,638—is suggestive of what may be going on. The regulations on dual-use equipment—such as computers—have generally not kept pace with changes in either computer technology or computing practices. The rapidly increasing power and capacity of modern personal computers means that many—including possibly the one that you are reading this blog post on—would be classified as dual-use and subject to sanctions. Our guess that when the smoke clears we’ll see that while WIPO may not have acted wisely, this incident will not amount to the major security breach the critics imply.
In the meantime, if WIPO and the UNDP want to get back into the good graces of the State Department and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen maybe they could do something about that unauthorized use of Disney characters in the extrava-gonzo Kim Jong-un attended the other night in Pyongyang. Now those are intellectual property rights really worth fighting for.