WIPO Embroiled in North Korean Computer Deal

FOX News recently broke a news story relating to a rogue branch of the United Nations undertaking some kind of clandestine scheme that would ultimately wind up shipping computers and other technologies to the government of North Korea in violation of several UN Resolutions, including UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.  As I sat there last night listening to the news I was shocked to hear Greta Van Susteren begin talking to John Bolten, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, about an allegedly little known UN agency called the World Intellectual Property Organization.  What?

The first thing that ran through my mind was how could they characterize WIPO being “obscure” and “little known”?  Of course, in the rest of the world no matter how large or important any agency or corporation that deals with intellectual property is rather obscure, which is a sad commentary in and of itself.  Then my thoughts immediately turned to disbelief.   How is this possible?  What were they thinking? The WIPO leaders I have met and communicated with seemed rather conservative and safe business people.  There has to be more to the story than they are helping out a radical and repressive regime obtain weapons of mass destruction.

As the story goes, Moncef Kateb, who is President of the WIPO Staff Association, wrote a memo on March 22, 2012, which starts off “Strictly confidential.”  I guess that is the universal code for please leak this as soon as possible!  In any event, the memo explains:

The Staff Council was informed that WIPO is currently implementing a project with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that is allegedly in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.

Under such project, computer hardware and other electronic equipment have been purchased and shipped to the DPRK’s Invention Office in Pyong-Yang…

Based on the information gathered by the Staff Council, Member States have not been consulted and have no knowledge of this project.  Thus, they were not given an opportunity to review or object to it…

The Staff Council is extremely concerned by the fact that WIPO staff may be implementing a project in violation of two UN Security Council Resolutions related to Sanctions against the DPRK and possibly in violation of staff’s own international obligations, and their national laws.

What a mess!

As the exceptionally detailed FOX New Online account explains, the concern is that these computers could be used for any purposes, not just for use at the North Korean Patent Office.  It seems that the government of North Korea continues to desperately try to obtain computer resources, allegedly to facilitate its nuclear ambitions.  Of course, other sources say that the sanctions are a failure because China gives North Korea whatever they need.  The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but the optics are absolutely horrible!


In addition to the bad optics involved with sending computers to a rogue regime, it seems that the extremely poor optics were known generally within WIPO. Indeed, on March 14, 2012, Edward Kwakwa, who is Legal Counsel for WIPO, wrote in an e-mail:

I would suggest we go ahead ONLY if you think this arrangement is of crucial importance to WIPO. But given the sensitivities and the broad sweep of the sanctions language, I would prefer that WIPO simply desist from entering into any such arrangement, as it does not seem to be of any consequence or benefit to WIPO, and can bring more trouble than benefit ultimately.

In hindsight, Kwakwa’s cautionary note seems quite prophetic in hindsight.  Nevertheless, just two weeks later Kwakwa wrote a legal memorandum explaining that the WIPO computer deal would not violate UN Security Counsel Resolutions.  Kwakwa acknowledged that the resolutions are very broad, but that leads to varying interpretations.  He would go on to write on March 28, 2012:

[C]onsidering the plain meaning of the resolutions as well as the context of their intent and purpose, it is clear that the UN Resolutions were intended to hinder the nuclear and ballistic missile programs of the DPRK, not to deprive the DPRK of technical assistance programs.  The UN Resolutions pose no legal barrier to WIPO’s computer transfer.

Obviously, FOX News has some well placed informants on this story, which is evident by the number of internal documents that have surfaced.  Regardless of whether WIPO meant any harm, the reality is that this looks terrible.  It is also certainly true that computers can be used for different reasons and a nation that starves its own people and has needlessly chosen economic collapse versus being a contributing member of the world community isn’t exactly rational or trustworthy.

Is WIPO evil or subversive? I have never seen any legitimate evidence of an evil or subversive WIPO. Sure, they are challenged as being subversive by the lunatic anti-patent and anti-innovation fringe that disagrees with intellectual property rights as a matter of religion, but promoting intellectual property rights and pointing out that countries that adopt intellectual property protections climb from economic despair is hardly subversive in any fair sense. Those who don’t like WIPO are largely professional protesters who don’t like government of any kind, claim everything is a UN conspiracy and would prefer a backwards way of life akin Marx meets the Unabomber — namely a world without technological advancement where everyone is given equally according to their need.  You know, the “share and share alike as long as its yours I’m sharing” anti-capitalist crowd.

No, WIPO is not evil or subversive in any realistic view.  If anything WIPO is too altruistic and wants to help third-world and developing countries economically succeed.  WIPO is the UN agency dedicated to the use of intellectual property, such as patents and copyrights, as a means of stimulating innovation and creativity.  WIPO works with member states and stakeholders to improve understanding and respect for intellectual property worldwide.  WIPO also implements international systems that make it easier to obtain protection globally for patents, trademarks and designs, as well as systems that foster the resolution of IP disputes.  Hardly a rogue agency.  WIPO spreads the gospel of IP and has been responsible for many millions of people coming out of poverty as the result of economic growth spurred forward through efforts lead by WIPO.

The WIPO website lists 9 strategic goals.  They are:

  • Balanced Evolution of the International Normative Framework for IP
  • Provision of Premier Global IP Services
  • Facilitating the Use of IP for Development
  • Coordination and Development of Global IP Infrastructure
  • World Reference Source for IP Information and Analysis
  • International Cooperation on Building Respect for IP
  • Addressing IP in Relation to Global Policy Issues
  • A Responsive Communications Interface between WIPO, its Member States and All Stakeholders
  • An Efficient Administrative and Financial Support Structure to Enable WIPO to Deliver its Programs

As far as I can tell none of these goals is forwarded by the sale of computers to North Korea.  Sure, North Korea is the exact type of country that WIPO has historically sought to help.  Not because they are a rogue nation, aspire to have a clandestine nuclear program or because they support terrorism, but rather because the people of North Korea suffer so much and there is so little economic activity that it is misleading to even call what they have an economy.  Such horribly mismanaged countries is where WIPO has done its best work, to encourage the adoption and respect of IP rights, which leads to international investment and economic development.

The WIPO formula is tried and true, but couldn’t they have waited until North Korea was no longer the subject of UN sanctions?

Whether WIPO meant to do anything wrong or whether they did anything wrong is completely immaterial.  By pushing forward with the sale of computers to North Korea WIPO has brought needless questions upon itself.  Questions and scrutiny that could make it much harder to carry out its mission, which is overwhelmingly altruistic.


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Misun Chung]
    Misun Chung
    August 10, 2012 05:40 am

    N Korea claims to have a patent system in the form of ‘inventor’s certificates’ (like the former Soviet system. The philosophy of patents is that an inventor makes public disclosure of the invention (instead of keeping it a trade secret)and in exchange gets a limited duration of economic exclusivity over the invention. N. Korea has no / zero publications of any inventor certificates. So there is no patent system.

    Also, the actual purpose was for Francis Gurry to get 2 member state votes for his re-election as director general in 2 years time.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    April 5, 2012 01:30 pm

    Humorless Democrat-

    Yes, imagine the audacity I have about actually wanting to be informed!


  • [Avatar for Humorless Democrat]
    Humorless Democrat
    April 5, 2012 03:55 am

    Gene Quinn watches Fox News?!