North Korea has developed sophisticated ways to circumvent international sanctions, including the suspected use of its embassies to facilitate an illegal trade in weapons, according to a United Nations report released Tuesday.
The U.N. said North Korea was also making use of more complicated financial countermeasures and techniques "pioneered by drug-trafficking organizations" that made tracking the isolated country’s purchase of prohibited goods more difficult.
"From the incidents analyzed in the period under review, the panel has found that [North Korea] makes increasing use of multiple and tiered circumvention techniques," a summary of the 127-page report said.
The report, compiled by a panel of eight U.N. experts, is part of an annual accounting of North Korea's compliance with layers of U.N. sanctions imposed in response to Pyongyang's banned nuclear weapons and missile programs. The panel reports to the U.N. Security Council.
China, North Korea's main trading partner and diplomatic ally, appeared to have complied with most of the panel's requests for information.
Some independent experts and Western countries question how far Beijing has gone in implementing sanctions, although the report did not specifically address that issue. Beijing has said it wants sanctions enforced.
Much of the report focused on North Korea's overseas trade networks, rather than its relationship with China.
The panel said it found a relatively complex "corporate ecosystem" of foreign-based firms and individuals that helped North Korea evade scrutiny of its assets as well as its financial and trade dealings.
North Korea's embassies abroad play a key role in aiding and abetting these shadowy companies, the report said, confirming long-held suspicions on the part of the international community.
In some of the most comprehensive evidence presented publicly against Pyongyang's embassies, the report said the missions in Cuba and Singapore were suspected of organizing an illegal shipment of Cuban fighter jets and missile parts that were seized on a North Korean container ship in Panama last July.
It included secret North Korean documents addressed to the ship's captain that offered detailed instructions on how to load and conceal the illegal weapons shipment and make a false declaration to customs officers in Panama.
"Load the containers first and load the 10,000 tons of sugar [at the next port] over them so that the containers cannot be seen," said the document, translated from Korean.
Panama seized the ship, named the Chong Chon Gang, for smuggling Soviet-era arms, including two jet fighters, under thousands of tons of sugar. After the discovery, Cuba said it was sending "obsolete" Soviet-era weapons to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba.
Chinpo Shipping, a firm that the report said was "co-located" with the North Korean Embassy in Singapore, acted as the agent for a Pyongyang-based company that operated the vessel, and North Korean diplomatic personnel in Cuba arranged the shipping of the concealed cargo.
Singapore's Foreign Ministry said its policy is to fully implement U.N. sanctions, adding that it has been cooperating with U.N. experts ever since learning in January that a Singapore-registered company was implicated in the case.
North Korea has gone to great lengths to mask the origin of its merchant shipping fleet by reflagging and renaming ships, the report said, particularly after the introduction of tightened U.N. sanctions in early 2013 that followed the country's third nuclear test.
Under the myriad U.N. sanctions, North Korea is banned from shipping and receiving cargo related to its nuclear and missile programs. The importation of some luxury goods is also banned, along with the illicit transfer of bulk cash.
Al Jazeera and Reuters