U.N. experts warn Venezuela it could be in breach of North Korea sanctions -documents

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.N. investigators monitoring compliance with sanctions on North Korea are looking into a possible military and technology deal between Pyongyang and Venezuela and have warned Caracas that it could be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In two previously unreported letters to Venezuela’s U.N. ambassador, Samuel Moncada - sent in October and last month and seen by Reuters - the independent panel of U.N. experts asked for specific terms of the agreement and spelled out the U.N. sanctions that could bar such a deal.

The probe comes as U.S. sanctions on the South American country, intended to force out President Nicolas Maduro over allegations he rigged his 2018 re-election, and increasing diplomatic isolation are pushing Venezuela to deepen ties with U.S. adversaries like Iran and North Korea.

“Taking into consideration that such cooperation is a recognized way for the DPRK to violate relevant U.N. resolutions, the Panel would like to request a response ... concerning information regarding above suspected cooperation,” panel coordinator Alastair Morgan wrote on June 12.

The initials DPRK stand for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The country has been subject to U.N. sanctions since 2006. The sanctions have been strengthened by the 15-member U.N. Security Council over the years in a bid to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The U.N. panel of experts reports annually to the council on sanctions compliance.

In its latest annual report, on March 2, the panel said it had started probing a possible military and technological cooperation deal signed by Diosdado Cabello - who leads Venezuela’s ruling socialist party and a legislative body known as the National Constituent Assembly loyal to Maduro - during a September 2019 Pyongyang trip.

Following publication of this story, Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special representative for Venezuela, said he would look further into the correspondence and the lack of a reply from Venezuela.

“A violation of U.N. sanctions is...potentially a very serious thing for the Maduro regime,” Abrams told reporters. “One of the other impacts besides any potential sanctions themselves is reminding countries around the world about the nature of this regime and the partners it seeks.”

Reuters could not verify whether a military and technological deal between North Korea and Venezuela exists, and the U.N. report and letters did not provide any details. In an Oct. 2, 2019, tweet, Maduro congratulated Cabello for the “tremendous agreements” signed during his recent Asian tour, which included stops in North Korea and Vietnam.

The investigators’ October letter to Moncada includes a news report about the Maduro tweet as an exhibit; it was unclear whether their probe has unearthed further evidence beyond that report.

During a conversation with Cabello on state television the night of the tweet, Maduro referenced military agreements but did not provide details or specify whether they were signed with North Korea or Vietnam.

“You were deployed with our brothers in North Korea and Vietnam, reaching great agreements for agricultural production, political formation, industrial production, commercial and energy exchange, for military support and cooperation,” Maduro said.

Venezuela’s information ministry, which responds to media inquiries on behalf of the government, and Moncada did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the U.N. investigation. North Korea’s U.N. mission in New York also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During the televised conversation with Maduro, Cabello described North Korea in almost utopian terms, praising the cleanliness of its streets and stating he did not see “a single person with a bitter or sad face.”

“On the streets, children walk home singing happily, they stop at corners to listen to orchestras playing for them as they pass. And who’s in the orchestras? Children, as well,” Cabello said. But he also made reference to a “secret,” adding, “What I saw later I will tell you in person.”

Maduro replied: “All I can say is, tremendous agreement.”

Reporting by Luc Cohen and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Leslie Adler