The North Korea kerfuffle

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Basil Rajapaksa, presidential sibling, US citizen and Sri Lanka’s Minister of Finance is reported to have admitted recently that the former Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had purchased weapons from North Korea during the peak of the armed conflict. This admission, if true, will confirm earlier reports on Wikileaks, the whistle blower website that disclosed confidential US government correspondence, that there were serious attempts by Sri Lankan military authorities to purchase weapons from the rogue state of North Korea in contradiction to United Nations sanctions and international law. 

According to a Sinhala language newspaper, Minister Rajapaksa is reported to have made the above admission to justify the use of the ‘Undial’ or irregular international foreign currency transactional systems to bring in much needed foreign currency to the country. This was supposed to allay any fears of the deteriorating financial situation and demonstrate that the Government will use any means possible to address problems, including those that are glaringly illegal.

The Finance Minister’s statement was hurriedly denied by the Foreign Ministry which quoted Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris as saying that he spoke to Minister Rajapaksa who in turn denied making the above admission. The second-hand denial is quite bizarre since when asked directly about this matter at a later press conference Minister Rajapaksa deflected the question rather than issue a categorical denial. It seems that even though the Foreign Minister understands the gravity of admitting to such an international crime, his colleague remains more interested in impressing the Sri Lankan electorate with his administration’s unorthodox ways of tackling problems.

Wikileaks publications had earlier suggested that the US Government was aware that Sri Lanka had been illegally dealing with the North Korean regime during the 2005-2015 Rajapaksa presidency. According to these cables, US intelligence agencies were aware that Lanka Logistics, a company functioning under the Ministry of Defence, tried to purchase RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade launchers and multiple rocket launchers from North Korea’s primary weapons trading firm.

As one of the world’s most notorious regimes, North Korea is subject to numerous sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and individual countries. The country has been ruled by a single family through a brutal dictatorship for nearly 80 years and has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Pyongyang is accused of numerous international crimes, such as selling illicit weapons, including nuclear technology, human smuggling, narcotics, and weapons smuggling.

To admit that Sri Lanka has clandestinely dealt with such a rogue nation, in violation of UN sanctions and international law is not a matter of pride but a source of great concern for the type of state that is being run by the past and current Rajapaksa administrations. While the Finance Minister may take pride in ‘fixing’ problems through any means possible, doing so in violation of norms, practice and law can have dire consequences for the whole country. 

For instance, the Finance Minister’s claims that the Government had engaged in internationally sanctioned activities, could bring about extra scrutiny of the country’s financial system as a source of money laundering. At a time when Sri Lanka is struggling to attract foreign investments and convince expatriates to remit their foreign earned money through the official financial system, there could not have been a worse revelation than this to undermine the stability of the system. Words have power when officials of the state utter them. It is prudent for the current rulers to take note. 

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