Amicable Ties Between North Korea and WIPO: A Model for Constructive Engagement?

The World Intellectual Property Organization has maintained amicable relations with North Korea for decades and is now one of the most favorably viewed international organizations in the isolated socialist country. Their history of engagement may bear insights on a novel approach to building a channel for communication and effective relationship-building between North Korea and the broader global community.

Dae Un Hong
March 05, 2020

Although the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN), has been instrumental to China’s acceptance and implementation of international intellectual property law since the 1980s, the decades-long close relationship between China and WIPO has generally remained unnoticed in the West.

This was until China recently announced that Wang Binying, a Chinese national and one of the four current WIPO Deputy Director-Generals, would run to be the organization’s next Director-General. Since the organization has not historically been implicated with political disputes, WIPO closely worked with socialist and non-socialist countries alike during the Cold War. This was in spite of an American, Arpad Bogsch, serving as Director-General from 1973 to 1997. WIPO’s tradition of cooperation continues today with a handful of socialist countries, including China, Vietnam, and North Korea.

It is a little-known fact that North Korea has an even longer history with WIPO than China does. North Korea joined WIPO on August 17, 1974, before any other Asian economies, including Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, as well as several developed European economies like Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Since then, North Korea has entered into many WIPO-administered treaties, and much earlier than many of its neighboring Asian economies. North Korea is a contracting party to 16 of 26 WIPO-administered treaties, surpassing China’s 14 and Vietnam’s 10, placing it behind only Japan and South Korea within Asia.

Even less known is that North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world, regards its relationship with WIPO as very special. In North Korea, WIPO is one of the best-known international organizations despite being a relatively small UN specialized agency, with just over 1,000 employees. This is in stark contrast to far more influential UN specialized agencies, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have more than 10,000 and 2,500 employees, respectively. North Korea heavily advertises intellectual property through its state media by celebrating World Intellectual Property Day around April 26, the day the WIPO Convention first came into force in 1970.

A simple search yields results indicating that Rodong Sinmun, the most widely circulated state newspaper published by the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, has, since 2018, mentioned WIPO more frequently and more favorably than it has the World Bank and IMF combined. On the other hand, many, if not all, other countries, collectively mentioned the World Bank and IMF thousands more times than WIPO during the same period, as illustrated by The New York Times.

In a similar vein, Rodong Sinmun regards recipients of the WIPO Medal for Inventors with high acclaim. Although the medal is not awarded to the most innovative inventors but rather those who have contributed most to their respective countries (and is selected at the country’s recommendation), it is remarkable that this medal awarded by a UN specialized agency is considered highly prestigious in North Korea. This suggests that North Korea respects the authority of an international organization and thereby values international recognition.

How has WIPO become such a well-regarded international organization in North Korea? Like numerous other international organizations, WIPO has been committed to developing and executing capacity-building programs for many developing countries, including training programs, national and regional seminars, and providing assistance with legislation and institution building. WIPO has provided official assistance to North Korea since 1980, when North Korea first acceded to the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property.

In 1996, WIPO prepared and sent to the North Korean government, at its request, a draft law on copyright and neighboring rights, which appears to have served as a model for the country’s first copyright law enacted in 2001. WIPO also provided 50 used computers to North Korea in 2000 and computer hardware and software for connecting to the WIPO database in 2004.

Other examples highlighting North Korea’s special relationship with the organization include two country projects financed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and implemented by WIPO: one aimed at strengthening industrial property administration and establishing a patent documentation center, begun in 1982 and completed in 1985; the other aimed at automating and computerizing the industrial property administration system, from 1994 to 1996.

Such programs often involved WIPO officials alongside consultants from both ‘fraternal socialist countries’ like Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany), and the Soviet Union, as well as non-socialist countries like Austria, France, and Sweden. These officials and consultants paid regular visits to North Korea during the Cold War, and the visits continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, with the only difference being discontinued assistance from former socialist countries.

WIPO has also organized visits by North Korean government officials, researchers, and professors to various intellectual property-related institutions in Europe as well as those in China, Australia, and Vietnam, for training funded by UNDP, WIPO, or the host countries. Such cooperation, including training of North Korean authorities and visits to Pyongyang by high-level WIPO officials to hold intellectual property seminars, has continued against the backdrop of strengthening UN Security Council-led sanctions against North Korea since 2006.

Like a handful of other international organizations that have offices in North Korea and consistently provide aid to the country, including UNDP and the World Food Programme, WIPO will likely continue to be one of the most favorably viewed international organizations in North Korea due to the great emphasis placed on building a “knowledge-based” economy since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012.

Increasing intellectual property to build a knowledge-based economy is an alternative economic policy of the Kim Jong-un regime. His administration particularly aims to address the perennial shortage of industrial raw materials in the country resulting from the failed manufacturing sector, and that has been exacerbated by UN Security Council-led sanctions. Accordingly, the country recently consolidated intellectual property-related government offices into an “Intellectual Property Bureau” that oversees all types of intellectual property in the country. In addition, many North Korean legal scholars and Rodong Sinmun emphasize the importance of intellectual property laws.

Notably, WIPO does not provide North Korea with any special privileges but has provided regular technical assistance to the country, as is the case with all other developing countries. In other words, WIPO does not treat North Korea as a special case. Still, North Korea treats WIPO as a very special international organization due to the country’s extreme isolation from the rest of the global community. WIPO seems to remind North Korea of the phrase “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” although the same may not be quite true of WIPO.

At any rate, the relations between North Korea and WIPO suggest that opportunities for constructive engagement with North Korea still exist, not only for other international organizations but for other countries as well. Admittedly, the North Korea problem—represented by nuclear tests, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and violations of social and economic as well as civil and political human rights—is highly complicated and, thus, is unlikely to be substantially resolved in the near future.

Nevertheless, the case of WIPO implies that North Korea is willing to accept international norms and become a more active participant in the global community, to the extent that it helps the country’s economic development and does not pose a threat to its regime. It also suggests that the process can be facilitated by a trusted partner, although it will take time, effort, and patience to build that trust. In short, it may become easier to find solutions to this problem if North Korea finds more trusted partners like WIPO that can serve as channels for its integration into the global community.

Dae Un Hong completed his doctoral dissertation on North Korean law and teaches North Korean law as a visiting scholar at Cornell Law School. Dr. Hong holds a BA in International Relations from Seoul National University and law degrees from Hanyang (JD), Northwestern (LLM), and Cornell (LLM/JSD). He is licensed to practice in South Korea and Washington, D.C.