KOREA NEWS North Korea’s attempts to smuggle luxury goods expose UN...

North Korea’s attempts to smuggle luxury goods expose UN sanctions regime that may be open to abuse


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Under UN resolutions, exports of luxury cars and other high-end items to North Korea are banned. The resolutions first began to be enacted in 2006 after Pyongyang carried out underground nuclear tests.

Pyongyang is also reportedly recalling its ambassador to Switzerland, Han Tae-song, while experts on the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee worked with Swiss officials to examine allegations Han was involved in smuggling poached ivory in Africa.

In Japan, one bottle of North Korean beer can land you in serious trouble

Han, who has served as both North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland since 2017 and its representative to the UN in Geneva, was also expelled from Zimbabwe in 1992 after being accused of trafficking in rhino horn.

The latest allegation of smuggling in endangered species comes after Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique had also been investigating a group linked to North Korea for more than a year.

Botswanan media reported that the group trafficked at least 19 elephant tusks and 18 rhino horns and confirmed the involvement of Yi Kang-dae, an intelligence official in the North’s state security organisation.

Experts suggested the two cases had different objectives, with the Lexus likely a gift from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to encourage the loyalty of a senior member of his entourage, while the ivory was probably part of a moneymaking deal to fund the operations of overseas diplomatic missions.


Vietnam seizes its largest haul of smuggled African ivory in more than 4 years

Vietnam seizes its largest haul of smuggled African ivory in more than 4 years

“Kim is known to be a big fan of expensive cars – he has been seen with Mercedes, Rolls-Royce and others – and it is obvious he wants these luxury vehicles to show off his prestige and importance,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and an authority on North Korea’s ruling family.

“At a very basic level, it is a status symbol,” he told This Week in Asia.

While Lexus was a very desirable brand, it was generally considered inferior to others and the vehicle being illicitly imported from Japan was likely destined to be a reward to an underling, Shigemura said.

The ivory smuggling, however, was likely to have been an effort to buy and sell illicit goods that could command high prices and even be transported in a nation’s diplomatic pouch, he added. North Korean diplomats have in the past been accused of using protected diplomatic bags – which cannot legally be searched by local authorities – to move narcotics, counterfeit cigarettes and fake currency.

Singapore official charged for sending Panadol, watches in diplomatic bags

And while many such cases have been detected in the past, many more sanction-busting deliveries do reach Pyongyang, according to Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“When it comes to something like a car, it is relatively easy because this is not advanced technology or an advanced weapon,” he said. “It may be a luxury car, but the world’s intelligence agencies have better things to do than try to halt cars from being delivered to Pyongyang.”

Dujarric said it would be “simple” to purchase a car somewhere in Europe or Southeast Asia and ship it to a third country where inspections were lax or customs officials could be bribed. Once in Moscow or Shanghai, it would be just as easy to put the vehicle on a truck or train headed for the North Korean border.


Made in North Korea: sanctions-hit textile factories focus on domestic athletes

Made in North Korea: sanctions-hit textile factories focus on domestic athletes

And if such a vehicle had diplomatic plates when it was uncrated in a border city, it could be driven into North Korea.

Park Jung-won, a professor of international law at Dankook University, agreed that the present sanctions framework was no longer fit for purpose.

“Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, UN sanctions are not being effectively implemented, although those at the national level have a better chance,” he said.

“There are so many indirect routes that luxury goods can take to get to North Korea, but there is little doubt to me that it is only possible because neighbouring countries fail to intervene to halt shipments,” he added. “Without their assistance, this smuggling would not be possible.”


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