An 80-year-old retired humanitarian worker and a presbyterian minister have had their homes raided by police over a donation used to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) in North Korea.
Laptops, mobile phones and paperwork were seized after police turned up without warning equipped with a warrant to search their homes.
Both men are members of the New Zealand-DPRK Friendship Society who say the police are investigating a $US2000 donation they made to the Red Cross Society of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in March.
New Zealand North Korea Friendship Society secretary Peter Wilson's home was raided on Monday morning.
"I realised there was a problem about a month after we made a press release which said we had supplied some money to the Red Cross of North Korea who had used the money to buy PPE gear for the quarantine border service of North Korea," he told Morning Report.
"And our bank came to us asking us questions. Initially, they said they were just doing a routine audit of international transfers and started asking me questions. I asked them to put the questions in writing and it was clear there was more to it than met the eye."
Wilson said there was no way to send money directly to North Korea; 10 years ago it was possible "until the Americans stopped that".
So he found someone in Indonesia who they transferred the money to, who then passed on the cash to the North Korean embassy.
Alarm bells went off when the bank asked about the money trail to North Korea when all they should have known was the transfer to Indonesia, he said.
"To my surprise, I got an email which told me that they [the bank] had been alerted by the New Zealand Police... Can you believe it?
"And then they shut our bank account down. I thought that was the end of the matter. That all happened during July."
In October, he was met with police.
"There's a knock on the door and I'm confronted by four policemen. They told me I was detained while they carried out a search of my house and they presented me with a search warrant which referred to the justified under United Nations Sanctions (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) Regulations 2017. For the next two hours they were here and they wanted post-2017 information.
"So I took them to the office, I told them everything that you want is in those boxes or on my laptop. They took my laptop and my cellphone."
Wilson was sure the money went to humanitarian efforts and said a receipt from the North Korean Red Cross and photos were evidence of it. They also put out that information in the press release.
"There's no secret about it. We're very proud that we're able to help them."
He said it was ironic that the police raided his house in the name of the UN.
"All of those UN sanctions specifically state they are not applicable to humanitarian aid.
"Although it's being done in the name of the UN all of this pressure on North Korea emanates from the policies of the United States. They have all been introduced to the security council by the US."
In March, the society also made a US$2000 donation to the DPRK Red Cross for the purchase of Covid-19 testing kits and related medical supplies.
Cash transfer 'doesn't meet requirement for exemption' - expert
International law expert Angela Woodward said the society may have been naive in the way it made the donation. While there were exemptions to the UN sanctions regime, they must be applied for by the state itself - in this case, New Zealand, she said.
"That must be done in advance, and it must include measures to make sure that there's no diversion of the goods for prohibited purposes under the sanctions."
There could also be problems with the way the donation was made, because the sanctions prevent cash transfers to North Korean entities.
"The New Zealand government is required to prevent such cash transfers being undertaken," Woodward said.
"I'm aware that the group was intending [the donation] would be used to purchase humanitarian goods, but because it wasn't an actual transfer of humanitarian goods, it doesn't meet the requirement for the exemption."
Woodward also raised concerns with the way the money was being transferred via Indonesia.
"The fact that the money was being transferred through a DPRK embassy is highly problematic. The DPRK embassies are specifically set up to channel foreign funds back to the administration and once they get back there, they're applied for any purposes that the administration sees fit.
"It's widely known as a channel for evading sanctions to apply those funds to the prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programmes."
Woodward also questioned the weight the society had placed on receiving receipts and photos as confirmation that the money had been spent on what was intended.
"I can't determine the veracity of that in this particular situation, but the regime is very skilled in providing fake documentation to support its sanctions evasion activities."
The society's Peter Wilson said he had spent 50 years of his life as a humanitarian worker.
"While I was working professionally I spent all of my time working on projects in a wide range of countries in Asia and the Pacific, so I know that war is not the way to solve things the only way to solve things is dialogue and working together with people.
"So I continue in retirement to be involved with North Korea because that's the biggest hotspot and really in my view the biggest ... problem area in the whole of our Pacific region."
The whole situation was painful, he said.
"I feel a bit upset that this has happened. I feel that it is totally needless and it is very inconvenient being deprived of my laptop and my cellphone."
But he said those would eventually be returned and it was nothing compared to the pain of the North Koreans who bore the brunt of the sanctions that often resulted in a shortage of food.
'This is a coordinated raid. It will have a name'
New Zealand-DPRK Friendship Society lawyer Matt Robson is demanding answers from the government.
He doesn't accept the argument from Justice Minister Andrew Little and Police Minister Stuart Nash that the raids were an 'operational' matter.
Robson told Morning Report the raid was "instigated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs".
He said there was pressure on ASB Bank by the police to close the account much before the investigation was done.
Robson said the police was not equipped with data to carry out the search.
"You haven't got just the police. I've had a response from Stuart Nash saying is an 'operational matter'. That's just nonsense and he'll know that."
And as for the search warrant - "I never got a signed copy."
While New Zealand authorities had a responsibility to step in if sanctions were breached, Robson said it was more in relation to weapons of mass destruction than PPE gear.
"This search warrant under [Search and] Surveillance Act can only be issued if there's imprisonment at stake. How can there be imprisonment at stake for what they've done, even if they've committed a technical breach, let's just say there is."
He said this was a "fishing expedition" and that several government departments and security authorities were involved.
"What they've got is people's names, addresses."
Basing his suspicion from his experience as associate minister of foreign affairs (responsible for official Overseas Development Aid [ODA]), where sanctions came up many times, Robson said the GSCB, SIS and MFAT were involved.
"This is a coordinated raid. It will have a name."
Robson also said the US had tried to "close down every agency that works in North Korea and they've done so successfully".
He said the New Zealand-DPRK Friendship Society had been involved in humanitarian efforts for many years.
"There is no breach of sanctions, this is humanitarian aid. PPE gear and everything else that the society has done is purely and clearly in the realm of humanitarian aid ... they are small amounts."
The police say they are investigating the allegations and search warrants were executed at two residential addresses in Auckland on Monday.
They cannot comment further while the investigation is ongoing.
Waikato firm prosecuted in 2018
In 2018, a Hamilton-based aircraft company - Pacific Aerospace - was fined almost $75,000 for breaching United Nations sanctions by exporting replacement parts to North Korea.
Pacific Aerospace sold a 10-seater plane to a Chinese firm, FreeSky Aviation in 2015, which was later spotted at an aviation event in North Korea, painted in military colours.
Manukau District Court was told the New Zealand company sent three replacement parts to the new buyer of the plane, which was still under warranty, and knew it was in North Korea - but assured the court it was for civilian use.
At the time, Pacific Aerospace said it accepted the penalty.
"We now better appreciate the complex sanctions issues associated with the export of aircraft and their parts, including in respect of indirect export provisions," the company said in a statement.
"We accept the sentence handed down by the court and we have put in place a number of policy and procedural checks to mitigate the risk of this happening again."