Turtle Bay

U.N. to North Korea: No yachts for you

U.N. to North Korea: No yachts for you

We know he loves basketball.

But how does North Korean leader Kim Jong Un feel about car racing?

A new U.S. and Chinese draft resolution condemning North Korea’s latest nuclear test has imposed a broad range of measures aimed at limiting the regime’s ability to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile program. But buried in the list of items barred from importation into North Korea are a handful of luxury items, including high-end jewelry, pleasure yachts, luxury automobiles, and race cars.

The U.N. Security Council had previously prohibited the export of luxury goods into North Korea in 2006, but it never specified which products should be considered luxurious enough to be banned. In April 2007, a U.N. sanctions committee ruled that each member state would be responsible for determining what fell under the ban. In Italy, high-end tap shoes were enough to trigger airport security to act. In Austria, government authorities cracked down on a businessman selling luxury yachts to the North Koreans.

A U.N. panel responsible for monitoring U.N. sanctions against North Korea in 2010 documented six illegal purchases of luxury goods by the North Koreans, including 2 yachts, 12 Mercedes-Benz vehicles, 37 pianos, and high-end cosmetics. In 2009, Italian customs officials at Fiumicino Airport in Rome seized "a shipment of electronic items, including a projector, some amplifiers and other electronic equipment suitable for a cinema hall seating 1,000 people." Later that year, Italian authorities in the Port of Ancona seized 150 bottles of cognac and 270 bottles of whisky.

"The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains actively engaged in the illicit procurement of luxury goods," the panel concluded. "Some of the luxury goods, such as the acquisition of the two luxury yachts, were facilitated by Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party and obviously destined for use by senior regime figures."

China has always viewed the luxury ban as excessive — a gratuitous penalty promoted by the west to humiliate the North Korean leadership — and it has largely refused to enforce it. Commercial flights from Beijing to Pyongyang are routinely packed with luxury goods, according to an official who was recently in the country.

So China’s agreement to ban specific luxury goods provides an indication of how angry Beijing must be at its troublesome neighbor and ally.  

But will a ban on race cars really bite? A cursory search through Google and Nexis didn’t turn up any stories about Formula 1 races or the leader’s love of fast cars — though I did come across a few stories about a new online car racing game based in Pyongyang.

My guess is that the new U.N. list was based on a luxury watchlist assembled by the U.S. Commerce Department, which includes racing cars, tobacco, silk, leather, furs, fake furs, perfumes, cosmetics, designer clothes, pearl- and gem-encrusted jewelry, flat-screen televisions, laptop computers, snowmobiles and … recreational sports equipment. Hmmm, I wonder if they ban basketballs. Now, that would hurt.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch