abb industrial robot

ABB denies sanction violations after its bots are spotted in North Korea

Image credit: Dreamstime

Swiss engineering firm ABB has denied selling industrial robots to North Korea against international sanctions after photos emerged, depicting them in a factory run by the totalitarian state.

North Korean state media covered a visit from Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to the “newly-built Thongchon fish-processing station” where familiar orange robots manufactured by ABB could be seen in photos as part of an industrial processing line. At least three of ABB’s “IRB 660” 250kg-capacity “palletizer” models could be seen on a production line being used to pick up and move large pallets of material, the ABB logo emblazoned on the side.

ABB has said it complied with all applicable trade sanctions: “That said, we cannot rule out that some of our equipment may have been resold to the DPR of Korea without our knowledge or permission,” an ABB spokesman told Reuters.

According to NK News, a South Korean website that covers North Korea, ABB has been investigated in the past by the UN Security Council (UNSC) for previous appearances of its machinery in the country, but has been cleared of directly shipping their products to the country. In a 2018 UNSC report, the body said: “the robotic arm had been indirectly procured by the [DPRK] between 2006 and 2015 without the manufacturer’s knowledge.”

The supply of industrial machinery to North Korea is prohibited under UN sanctions, introduced over its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea has called for an end to sanctions that have crippled its economy, although progress has stalled after it fired two suspected missiles into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan in October.

ABB has been making its distinctive orange robots for years but announced in 2014 that it would be changing its colour scheme “for a new era of robotics”. This implies that the North Korean machines are at least five years old.

In August the UNSC found that North Korea was using cyber-attacks to steal cryptocurrency in order to raise funds for the development of weapons of mass destruction. 

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