- Nov 22, 2003
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Why we should not turn there; they make Congressmen look honest:
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
The Oil for Food scandal yields its first conviction.
BY CLAUDIA ROSETT
Thursday, July 20, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
While the United Nations frames its next response to crisis in the Middle East, its last grand venture in that region--Oil for Food--has finally resulted in a guilty verdict in open court. Last Thursday, a high-rolling, globe-trotting South Korean businessman named Tongsun Park was convicted in the Southern District of New York of conspiracy to launder money and act as an unregistered agent of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Mr. Park's case is much entwined with the executive floor of the U.N. For years, he enjoyed extraordinary access to its top officials, complete (at least at one stage) with a U.N. grounds pass. Prosecutors argued that he used this foothold to help Saddam corrupt the 1996-2003 Oil for Food program from the start, the aim being to undermine the U.N. sanctions and ultimately remove them altogether. In return, Mr. Park got at least $2.5 million from Iraq, with a promise of millions more to come.
In the courtroom, the 71-year-old Mr. Park--who did not take the stand--seemed a quiet man with a slicked-back mane of graying hair, sipping bottled water and slouching behind one of his defense team's open laptops. Yet the conspiracy of which this Baghdad-backed secret agent was a part involved dashes across the Iraqi desert, high-level meetings at U.N. headquarters, and bags, briefcases and even underwear stuffed with cash.
The Tongsun Park case has gotten remarkably little press, but it is both an important and a cautionary tale. It illustrates how easily the U.N., behind its veils of secrecy and diplomatic immunity, can be exploited by the most unscrupulous tyrants on the planet. And Mr. Park's conviction is a warning to beware any "back channels" now running between the U.N. executive suite and such rogue states as North Korea and Iran.
Tongsun Park, readers may remember, was a central figure in the U.S. congressional bribery scandal of the 1970s known as "Koreagate." Indicted on federal charges--including money laundering, racketeering and acting as an unregistered agent of South Korea's central intelligence agency--Mr. Park testified in exchange for immunity.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Park was re-established in Washington, where he owned a watering hole known as the Historic Georgetown Club. He also paid frequent visits to New York, getting to know former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and often dropping by the U.N. official residence. He brought flowers to Mrs. Boutros-Ghali, and helped raise funds for the U.N.'s 50th anniversary.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iraq. One of Saddam's unregistered agents, an Iraqi-born American citizen by the name of Samir Vincent, began lobbying in the U.S. for an end to U.N. sanctions--or at least a relief program on terms open to manipulation. The 65-year-old Mr. Vincent was arrested last year and pled guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of Iraq and a number of other charges. Testifying as a cooperating witness at Mr. Park's trial, Mr. Vincent said that he first pitched his proposals in Washington, targeting such people as Elizabeth Dole, then head of the American Red Cross, and John Bolton, now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., then the State Department's assistant secretary for international organizations. He got nowhere: The Red Cross proposal flopped, and Mr. Bolton wouldn't even see him.
Mr. Vincent then set his sights on the U.N. itself but needed access. In late 1992, he was introduced to Tongsun Park.
So began a period of message-swapping and meetings that gave Baghdad an inside track running from Mr. Vincent to Mr. Park to Mr. Boutros-Ghali and some of his top aides, and back. By 1995, the U.N. Security Council had authorized the broad terms of Oil for Food, but the all-important details remained to be hammered out. At that point, according to Mr. Vincent's testimony, Mr. Park said he could clinch a deal acceptable to Saddam if the Iraqis provided him with $10 million to take care of his "expenses" and his "people"--a reference that Mr. Vincent said he understood to include the only person he "knew of at the time"--"Boutros Boutros-Ghali." Mr. Vincent testified that during that crucial year--1996--he passed $1 million in cash to Mr. Park, $100,000 in an envelope, and $400,000 and then $500,000 in grocery bags. U.N. records show that Mr. Park, during roughly that period, made at least 20 visits to the official residence of the secretary general.
By the end of 1996, the Oil for Food program had begun and the first oil officially exempted from sanctions was flowing from Iraq. But Mr. Boutros-Ghali was on his way out, about to lose his job to Kofi Annan. Baghdad sent word that there would be no more payments to the conspirators. (Mr. Boutros-Ghali has not been accused of wrongdoing and denies receiving any money from Iraq.)
Mr. Park's connection with the U.N., and to Iraq, however, did not end there. He also had ties to a longtime U.N. eminence, a Canadian named Maurice Strong--who served from 1997 to 2005 as one of Mr. Annan's most influential advisers and envoys, holding the U.N.'s third-highest rank, undersecretary general.
While best known as the godfather of the 1997 Kyoto treaty, U.N. records show that Mr. Strong was also the chief architect of Mr. Annan's 1997 U.N. reforms, including the consolidation of the Oil for Food program into one office, reporting to Mr. Annan and headed by longtime U.N. staffer Benon Sevan. (Mr. Sevan was alleged last year by the U.N.'s own probe to have taken $147,000 in payoffs on Oil for Food deals. From Cyprus, beyond reach of U.S. extradition, Mr. Sevan has denied any wrongdoing.)
The trial evidence showed that in that same year--1997--Mr. Park visited Jordan, next door to Iraq, and returned to New York with a check for $988,885 made out to "Mr. M. Strong." It was funded by a lump sum of cash deposited into a Jordanian bank account by an Iraqi passport holder. There followed a complex deal involving Mr. Park's purchase of shares in a Strong family oil company which soon after went bankrupt. But if anyone came out almost $1 million ahead, it was Mr. Strong. (Mr. Strong, whose Canadian office says he is in Beijing, has denied any knowledge of the source of the funds, has not been accused of any crime, and has refused to comment until after Mr. Park's sentencing.)
Nevertheless, Mr. Park's loss did not sour the relationship. In 2000, and "probably" for some years after that, Mr. Park paid the rent for a private office that Mr. Strong kept in midtown Manhattan, according to the trial testimony of Washington businessman C. Wyatt Dickerson. During that time, Mr. Strong was still on U.N. contract as a special adviser to Mr. Annan. And when Mr. Strong became Mr. Annan's personal envoy to North Korea from 2003 to 2005, he turned, as he later acknowledged, to Mr. Park--born in what is now North Korea--for advice.
It is unlikely that any of this would have come to light had not the U.S., over U.N. protests, toppled Saddam in 2003. Congressional investigations have since found that the U.N. program opened the floodgates for anywhere from $10 billion to $17 billion in graft, scams and smuggling, some of which went to pay for Saddam's palaces, weapons and rewards for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.
Many mysteries remain, some perhaps to be answered when a number of alleged co-conspirators of Messrs. Vincent and Park go on trial this November. Now facing up to 12 years in prison--and also, now, under federal indictment in the District of Columbia for lying to the FBI--Mr. Park might yet decide to cooperate with the prosecution. The biggest question is this: If the U.N. still has its back channels, which it almost certainly does, what is going on in them today?
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.