by: John Kehoe
US President Donald Trump’s top official at the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has clashed against an Australian-led agency for not alerting the UN to North Korea’s production of a substance sometimes used to make chemical weapons.
The US is disturbed the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation, headed by senior Australian diplomat Francis Gurry, did not notify the UN Security Council about North Korean applying to patent sodium cyanide, which is on the international sanctions list.
The dual-purpose sodium cyanide is a compound that is sometimes used to make poisons and chemical weapons, but is often employed to extract gold, which North Korea is naturally endowed in.
The spat potentially squeezes Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop between a close Australian ally in the US and Dr Gurry, who the government has previously supported to head WIPO in the face of his alleged involvement in other controversies that also angered the US.
Ms Bishop and Ms Haley met in New York last week and discussed a range of issues, including the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
A day after their meeting Ms Haley released a statement – in response to media questions – voicing concern about WIPO’s handling of North Korea’s patent application for producing the chemical compound.
“The thought of placing cyanide in the hands of the North Koreans, considering their record on human rights, political prisoners, and assassinations is not only dangerous but defies common sense,” Ambassador Haley said.
“We urge all UN agencies to be transparent and apply the utmost scrutiny when dealing with these types of requests from North Korea and other rogue nations.”
President Trump and Ms Haley are trying to build international pressure on North Korea to halt its intercontinental ballistic missile program. It follows the estranged half-brother of dictator Kim Jong-un being assassinated by a nerve agent.
WIPO responded to Ms Haley, saying it believed that patent disclosures were not covered by the UN sanction rules and that an international treaty likely prohibits it from tipping off the UN Security Council.
“WIPO has never submitted a patent for review to the Sanction Committee, and the Committee staff has confirmed to us no Member State ever has either,” WIPO said.
Dr Gurry has taken advice from his deputy director John Sandage. He was previously a US State Department official responsible counter-terrorism and sanctions policy, who oversaw the North Korean sanctions negotiated in 2006.
Geneva-based Dr Gurry, an intellectual property lawyer from Melbourne, has led WIPO for nearly a decade and his day-to-day role is largely independent of the government.
In a separate incident in 2012, Dr Gurry was forced to defend himself against a US Congress committee for WIPO’s shipment of US-manufactured computer equipment to patent offices in North Korea and Iran, which had trade sanctions imposed on them.
The two nuclear states allegedly supported Dr Gurry in a 42-41 vote to be elected WIPO director general in 2008.
The then-Australian Ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, in 2013 rejected criticisms by US lawmakers and described the computers as “standard office equipment” including workstations, laptops, printers, scanners and servers to expand the patent offices.
WIPO is not bound by US law and it was cleared of breaching sanctions by an independent investigation for shipping the IT equipment.
Ambassador Haley said on Monday that “all options are on the table” in relation to North Korea and warned the dictatorship not to “give us a reason” to fight.
Separately, she hailed the strong partnership between the US and Australia at the UN, including for Ms Bishop’s strong statements on North Korea’s recent missile tests.
It is not known whether the WIPO issue was discussed between Ms Bishop and Ms Haley, with one official source in New York saying they didn’t believe it was raised.
A spokeswoman for Ms Bishop said Australia was closely monitoring the matter.
“WIPO has provided assurances that news reporting criticising its involvement in North Korea’s patent application is inaccurate, and that it will assist the relevant UN sanctions committees with respect to any clarification necessary,” she said.
The UN sanctions list bans the export and import of hundreds of chemicals and technologies to or from North Korea.
It is understood that WIPO’s refusal to alert the UN Security Council was influenced by the Patent Cooperation Treaty not permitting WIPO to give the UNSC patent applications before their public release, in order to protect inventors.
“By contrast, military inventions are typically kept secret and are not filed as patent applications since, if they were, they would eventually become public,” WIPO said.
North Korea’s patent application was made to China’s national intellectual property office.
WIPO was an administrative conduit in the process, receiving the application, translating the language into English and French and eventually publishing a notification on its website.
China determined that North Korea’s sodium cyanide technology was invented elsewhere in the 1970s, so a patent is highly unlikely to be granted.
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