A senior United Nations official has admitted having a business relationship with a South Korean lobbyist indicted in connection with the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has denied any knowledge of the relationship.
Businessman Maurice Strong has been called the most influential Canadian on the planet. He is a close adviser to Mr. Annan and holds the title of undersecretary-general and special envoy to North Korea. In a written statement late Monday, Mr. Strong acknowledged having ties with South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park.
The U.S. attorney in New York last week charged Mr. Park with attempting to influence U.N. officials on behalf of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The indictment said Mr. Park had met two high-ranking U.N. officials in the 1990s on behalf of the Baghdad government, and had received more than two million dollars for his work.
The complaint did not name the two U.N. officials.
In his written statement to reporters Monday, Mr. Strong admitted that in 1997, Mr. Park invested in an energy firm with which he is associated. But he said the investment was on a "normal commercial basis" and had no relationship to Iraq.
Mr. Strong gave no indication as to whether he was one of the two unidentified officials referred to in the indictment. But he acknowledged that he has had a continuing relationship with Mr. Park, noting that as a native of North Korea, Mr. Park had advised him on Korean issues in his role as U.N. envoy.
In a brief conversation with VOA Tuesday, Secretary-General Annan denied having had any knowledge of the business relationship between Mr. Strong and Mr. Park.
ANNAN: "Maurice is my special adviser and is helping me on North Korea, and he has been with the U.N. on and off since the 70s when he was head of the U.N. Environment Program."
Q: "Were you aware of his relationship with Mr. Tongsun Park?
ANNAN: "He has already issued a statement to that effect."
Q: "But were you aware of it yourself in 1997-98?"
ANNAN: "[I] wasn't aware of it, but I don't want to get into it since it's before Mr. Volcker's committee and others are looking at it judicially."
Other U.N. officials have confirmed that former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was also a good friend of Mr. Park. The two men are reported to have met several times during the early and mid-nineties, when details of the oil-for-food program were being negotiated.
Mr. Park first achieved notoriety in the 1970s, in the so-called "Koreagate scandal." He was accused then of trying to buy influence in the U.S. Congress.
Spokesman Stephane Dujarric Tuesday said Secretary-General Annan is considering whether to ask Maurice Strong to step down in light of the latest revelations. He said Mr. Annan remains committed to getting to the bottom of the oil for food scandal.
"We are being aggressive in the sense that the secretary-general went forward and named the Volcker panel which has, what, a $40 million budget and 60 investigators. They are looking into all issues having to deal with oil-for-food," he said.
The Volcker panel, led by former U.S. Central Bank chief Paul Volcker, has spent more than a year looking into allegations of rampant fraud and mismanagement in the oil-for-food program. Several U.S. congressional committees and the Justice Department are conducting separate investigations.
The scandal has badly damaged the world body's reputation. The head of the U.N. information division, Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor told a seminar this week "the United Nations' standing in many countries has never been lower."
"From the lingering disapproval of the UN's role over the war in Iraq, to alleged wrongdoings in the oil-for-food program, to charges of sexual exploitation in peacekeeping operations, the U.N.'s image has been badly bruised," he added.
The oil-for-food program operated from 1996 to 2003 to help ordinary Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Iraq. But investigations have documented how Saddam manipulated the program, using oil profits to reward friends and to buy influence, including at the United Nations.