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9 October 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:32am

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?

By Sophie McBain

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.

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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.