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UN panel accuses N. Korea of using airports for missiles

In this Jan. 1, 2018 file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers his New Year's speech at an undisclosed place in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- A U.N. panel has found North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs remain intact, with Pyongyang using airports and other civilian facilities to expand and test defensive missiles, according to a report obtained by Kyodo News.

"The panel found that (North Korea) is using civilian facilities, including airports, for ballistic missile assembly and testing with the goal of effectively preventing 'decapitation' strikes," according to the annual report, issued by a panel that investigates North Korean sanctions violations.

The report also cited how the facilities used were located near rail links, roads and other infrastructure for the transport, assembly and testing of banned weapons systems, such as the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.

The panel further found that the reported ballistic missile activity sites were part of a trend by North Korea to disperse its assembly, storage and testing locations.

The document, yet to be made public, concludes that the North's weapons program "remains intact" despite international efforts to curb it, including a series of increasingly harsh U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions.

Specifically, the Yongbyon nuclear complex was said to have remained active. Satellite imagery captured the construction of a building near the reactors' water discharge facilities and the excavation of water channels.

In response to each of the six nuclear tests carried out by Pyongyang since 2006, the council has imposed additional sanctions to clamp down on materials and funding sources for the banned weapons programs.

The most recent sanctions measures, in 2017, included a cap on the country's imports of petroleum products and crude oil, as well as a coal ban.

The report, prepared by a panel of eight experts, also found ports and airports were being used for "rampant violations" including illegal oil imports, coal exports and the smuggling of cash by North Korean nationals.

The panel is composed of one member each from the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- as well representatives from Japan, South Korea and South Africa. Their expertise spans various fields from nuclear proliferation to export trade control.

In their annual report, distributed to the council's North Korea sanctions committee, they also noted concerns over the humanitarian impacts of sanctions measures, an issue that has drawn increasing scrutiny among some council members, agencies and organizations affiliated with the international body.

"Member states, United Nations agencies and humanitarian organizations have expressed concern that despite the exemption provisions in the resolution and the committee's efforts, United Nations agencies and humanitarian organizations continue to experience difficulties in meeting critical life-saving needs of vulnerable populations" in North Korea, the report said.

Diplomats, however, have pointed out that more humanitarian agencies and the U.N. Children's Fund have recently been granted exemption status after an effort was made last August to streamline the process.

Also, for the first time, the panel flagged a reporting failure by South Korea, saying it did not tell the committee of its shipments of petroleum products to its northern neighbor for use at a joint liaison office in Kaesong, set up in September just inside North Korea.

A diplomat explained that while it was technically considered a violation according to the wording of the resolution, it was a minor infraction and both sides are in touch with one another to resolve the issue.

The report is due to be publicly released next month unless there are objections, as the move would need to pass by consensus.

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