WASHINGTON, October 9, 2013—The North Korean government labeled Switzerland’s refusal to sell it ski lifts for a new luxury ski resort “a human rights abuse.” Characterized in the press as another childish tantrum by Kim Jong Un, the belligerent reaction may nevertheless be indicative of what kind of sanctions may really hurt North Korea’s ruling elite.
“This is an intolerable mockery of the social system and the people of the DPRK and a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans,” KCNA, North Korea’s official news outlet, stated in a release.
Through KCNA the North Korean government blasted several European governments for refusing to sell it two ski lifts citing United Nations (UN) trade sanctions against North Korea.
The KCNA article went on to state that the refusal amounted to “resorting to criminal hostile act of violating the dignity of a sovereign state in the eyes of the international community in a bid to deprive Koreans of their elementary right to enjoy a cultural life.”
North Korea initially approached French and Austrian companies, but both reportedly refused to sell it ski lifts for Masik Pass, the first North Korean luxury ski resort, initially scheduled to open Thursday.
Switzerland is known for its neutrality and is where current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went to school as a teenager and presumably developed his love for the sport. After the refusals from Austria and France, Pyongyang then offered a Swiss company $7.6 million for two ski lifts, according to the LA Times.
The Swiss government blocked the deal, however, invoking UN sanctions banning the sale of luxury goods to North Korea following underground nuclear tests conducted by the Hermit Kingdom on February 12.
The luxury good ban is part of a March 7 resolution adopted by the UN, listing items like luxury cars, gems, jewelry, and yachts among the goods that North Korea could not import. However, the list was not meant to be comprehensive and the European countries involved agree that ski lifts are luxury goods under the UN ban.
The completion of the 10-month long Masik Pass ski resort project was meant to coincide with the 68th anniversary of the formation of the Korean Worker’s Party on October 10. However, despite the use of military “shock brigades”—brigades used for especially difficult and urgent assignments—the resort will not be finished by Thursday, Kim Tae Yong, chief of the North Korean ski association, told the Associated Press.
The remaining work on the unfinished 250-room building for foreigners, 150-room hotel for Koreans, underground parking lot, housing for employees, access bridges and pumping station will be completed in phase two of the project.
And then, of course, there’s the ski lift issue.
After the European countries’ refusal to sell ski lifts to North Korea, AP reports that Kim Jong Un called it “a pity,” but promised the resort would have three lifts by the end of the year.
“We can make nuclear weapons and rockets,” he said. “We can build a ski lift.”
The same report on Monday stated that there are currently two “simple” lifts, but they were not operating at the time of the journalists’ visit a few weeks prior.
Given the young leader’s prior behavior and North Korea’s human rights record, it is easy to interpret accusations of human rights violations in the face of reports of up to 120,000 political prisoners systematically tortured in the country’s five prison camps as a childish tantrum by a leader and a regime with no connection to reality. However, there may be a lesson to be learned.
“This incident is important for what it says about sanctions against North Korea and what sort of punishments can really hurt the regime,” writes Max Fisher at the Washington Post.
According to Fisher, food aid sanctions have had moderate success while at the same time hurt a large number of North Korean civilians. On the other hand, sanctions like the ban on luxury goods hurts the elite, without hurting civilians.
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