Ski lifts, cognac and human rights in North Korea

Does North Korea's anger at Switzerland's refusal to supply ski lifts for the country's first luxury ski resort suggest that stricter sanctions could work?

North Korea is due to open the country’s first luxury ski resort this Thursday. The Masik Pass will cater to an estimated 5,500 skiers in the country, or 0.2 per cent of the population, the Associated Press reported. Masik Pass has however come up against one big problem: no one wants to sell them ski lifts. The Swiss recently pulled out of a $7.7m deal, citing sanctions on the import of luxury goods to North Korea, and French and German manufacturers have also said no. North Korea's state-run media has called the Swiss decision a "serious human rights abuse”.

To put this into perspective, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in North Korea are imprisoned in forced labour camps, where as well as carrying out backbreaking work, they are starved, denied medical care, and face constant beatings, and even executions, by camp staff. Around 10 per cent of the population suffers from malnourishment, and the average worker earns around $4 a day. Citizens are not allowed to leave the country, and anyone who questions the status quo risks detention without trial, torture and even public execution.

The United Nations sanctions on luxury products were intended to put pressure on North Korea’s regime in response to its nuclear weapons tests. While North Korea’s leadership is unlikely to worry too much about the effect of crippled economic growth on its populace (as long as they are starved into submission, rather fired up for revolt), it was hoped a ban on luxury products will focus the minds of the North Korea’s cognac-swilling elite - North Korea’s late dictator (and the father of its current leader) Kim Jong-Il reportedly spent $720,000 a year on Hennessy cognac.

Unfortunately, no one can agree on what counts as a ‘luxury’ item, and China in particular, while agreeing to sanctions in principle, tends to apply a far narrower definition than most. North Korea doesn’t publish data on its imports, but UN data from 2010 details exports including 50,000 bottles of wine, 3,559 sets of videogames from China, 3,191 cars (including one from Germany costing almost $60,000) and 839 bottles of spirits worth an average of $159 each.

This Radio Free Asia article describes department stores in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang selling Chanel perfume, designer clothing and Rolex watches to the country’s elite, and senior North Korean officials visiting China have no problem stocking up on luxuries to take home.

The big fuss that the North Korean regime is kicking up over ski lifts suggests that Switzerland’s decision to respect sanctions has hurt and riled the country’s leadership. In Iran we may be starting to see sanctions having an impact, and similarly tighter sanctions on North Korea may well be the best, if not the only way, to force North Korea’s leadership to start serious negotiations about its nuclear weapons programmes, and hopefully (but perhaps less realistically) be pressured into domestic reform. Ski lifts are not a human right, but perhaps together with cognac, videogames and luxury cars, they can be a tool for promoting them.

The construction site of the Masik Pass Skiing Ground. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.