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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Correction at 21:00 KST: This article has been corrected to say the model pictured could have also been produced prior to a larger company policy change eliminating orange-colored robots in favor of white-colored ones.
Industrial robotics manufactured by a Swiss company have again appeared in North Korea, potentially in violation of international sanctions, photographs published by state media on Tuesday show.
In coverage of Kim Jong Un’s recent visit to the “newly-built Thongchon Fish-processing Station” on Tuesday, heavy-duty processing line robotics made by ABB, one of the largest and longest-operating in the global industry, were seen in use on site.
At least three of what appear to be the “IRB 660” 250kg-capacity “palletizer” models, used to pick up and move large objects using specialized attachment arms, appear on the factory’s fish processing lines.
The presence of items that are explicitly prohibited by the UN for export to North Korea is likely to raise concerns, if found to have been recently imported, over continued enforcement leakage and possible procurement networks for sensitive technologies.
ABB did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company has previously been investigated by the UN Security Council (UNSC) Panel of Experts (PoE) on North Korea for the appearance of similar items, but was cleared of direct participation in the shipments.
The PoE in their 2018 report, continuing a years-long investigation into the procurement of ABB robotics installed at the January 18 General Machinery Plant (which appeared in a Kim Jong Un visit in December 2015), said they found “that the robotic arm had been indirectly procured by the [DPRK] between 2006 and 2015 without the manufacturer’s knowledge.”
An ABB spokesperson also denied involvement in North Korea in response to a question from Reuters on the case, but conceded the company “cannot rule out that some of our equipment may have been resold to DPR of Korea without our knowledge or permission.”
The investigation stemmed from concerns the import could be a violation of sanctions prohibiting dual-use items that could contribute to North Korea’s nuclear program.
But as the panel noted that such robotics were then explicitly prohibited for export to North Korea under UNSC Resolutions 2270 (passed in 2016) and 2397 (2017), the company which knowingly sent the models seen at the fish-processing station this week would be in violation if the shipment was made after March 2016.
In another possible sanctions breach, similar orange industrial robotics as those seen at the January 18 General Machinery Plant also recently appeared at another new factory in North Korea: the Myohyangsan Medical Appliances Factory.
The orange color of the robotics indicate these are also made by ABB — who had for decades made the color their signature — though no logos were seen in the available images.
ABB announced in 2014, however, that their products would begin to be painted white instead of orange, indicating the models at the medical appliances factory were produced prior to that. The white models at the fish-processing station, however, had already been produced in that color prior to the policy change.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCTV