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Technology for Tyrants

Courtesy of the U.N.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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The Iranian staffer whose name is linked to tech transfers to Iran is Mohammad Moayedoddin. He was hired by WIPO in 1998, following more than 20 years working for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during which WIPO was part of his brief. Since joining WIPO, Moayedoddin has worked out of Geneva for WIPO’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, which covers Iran and North Korea. WIPO records show Moayedoddin visiting both countries over the years, organizing or speaking at numerous seminars in Iran and speaking in North Korea at a 2003 WIPO seminar in Pyongyang on using patent information “to support technological development.”

Since at least 2008, Moayedoddin has worked as deputy director of WIPO’s Asia-Pacific bureau. In an internal WIPO memorandum dated 2009—a year after Gurry became director general—another WIPO staff member wrote that following a 2008 mission by Moayedoddin and another staffer to Iran, Iran requested “hardware equipment.” That led to a WIPO shipment of computers to Iran in 2010. There is one other Iranian national on staff at WIPO since at least 2009, Azadeh Ahmadian, who holds the post of examiner—a job that can involve handling confidential information on intellectual property.

On the North Korean front, a WIPO activity report dated September 29, 2010, notes that in 2009 two staffers were “repeatedly approached” by a North Korean diplomat, “Mr. Sok,” who requested WIPO’s support for such projects as “searching patent information free databases, etc.” This diplomat was Sok Jong Myong, an envoy of North Korea to the U.N. in Geneva, where his duties included denouncing Israel (in excellent English) at the Human Rights Council, as well as representing Pyongyang at WIPO.

Sok’s repeated requests led to a WIPO mission to Pyongyang, out of which came the high-tech shipment to North Korea in early 2012. Meanwhile, sometime around 2010, WIPO hired Sok onto its staff, where he appears on a recently updated internal staff list as a senior program officer in WIPO’s division for least-developed countries.

This year, WIPO has continued its missions to North Korea, sponsoring a seminar in March on industrial design protection (North Korea has filed only two applications for industrial designs, one for hairpins and another for a musical instrument) and dispatching a technical assistance mission in June. When I asked the aim of the technical mission, a WIPO spokeswoman emailed back that it was to check what North Korea was doing with goods provided by WIPO. According to the spokeswoman, “The mission confirmed that all of the supplied equipment was installed in the Invention Office” and “was being used for the intended purposes.”

That’s not necessarily reassuring. Despite all the computers and seminars and study trips WIPO has provided to North Korea over the past dozen years, North Korea under WIPO’s benchmark Patent Cooperation Treaty System has produced only 32 patent filings. Iran has produced 28. So, even assuming the WIPO-supplied hardware is being used strictly to access WIPO services, what might these countries be doing with it?

WIPO’s searchable database provides access to some 2.2 million international patent applications, including 32.5 million documents crammed with details of who is inventing what, and where. For U.N.-sanctioned regimes scouring back-channels for forbidden goods and services, this database could double as a high-tech global shopping directory. A seasoned North Korea expert, Chuck Downs, says that for Pyongyang it could serve as “an intelligence windfall.” WIPO says that the database contains published information, and is freely searchable on the Internet. In that case, why such care by WIPO to provide the likes of Iran and North Korea with training seminars and follow-up missions that leave the equipment in place?

Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

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