A new study says China is turning a blind eye to U.N. sanctions on luxury goods to nuclear-armed North Korea, in effect helping leader Kim Jong Il cement another dynastic succession.
China holds the key to implementing the sanctions that followed North Korea's nuclear test in 2009, but Pyongyang has been circumventing the restrictions by routing trade and financial transactions through its powerful neighbor, said the report by the nonpartisan research arm of the U.S. Congress.
"China is clearly not enforcing sanctions on luxury goods," said the report by the Congressional Research Service based on interviews with officials from the U.S. and other governments as well as the United Nations.
Countries that report trade to the U.N. exported U.S. $212.2 million in luxury goods to North Korea in 2009.
China led the way with exports of luxury goods of U.S. $136.1 million — mostly tobacco, computers, and cars — followed by Brazil (U.S. $36 million) and Singapore (U.S. $29 million).
According to the 35-page congressional report, Western visitors to Pyongyang as late as last month said there seemed to be no scarcity of luxury goods in markets in the North Korean capital.
Most of the luxury goods seemed to be from China but those from Japan also were plentiful, it said. The U.N. resolution did not specify which luxury goods were included in the ban.
Kim Jong Il is believed to generate support for his secretive regime by providing luxury goods such as cars, yachts, and jewelry to the military top brass and senior administration officials.
Keeping family in power
In addition, Kim's penchant for luxury goods has been widely reported—caviar, Mercedes Benz vehicles, suits made from Scabal fabric, Moreschi shoes, Perrier water, and Martell cognac.
The unending flow of luxury goods from China, particularly, can help Kim keep his family in power.
"Kim Jong Il has been providing luxury goods to government officials partly as he seeks to solidify support for another dynastic succession and to pave the way for his young son, Kim Jong Un, to lead the country," the congressional report said.
The report acknowledged that China had interdicted some shipments to
North Korea that were related directly to nuclear and ballistic
missiles and that it had cancelled a joint industrial project with a
North Korean entity on the sanctions list.
"Still, because China takes a minimalist approach to implementing sanctions on North Korea, it has proven difficult to strengthen measures any further in the U.N. context," the report said.
For example, it said, North Korea continued to use air and land routes through China "with little risk of inspection, and luxury goods from China and from other countries through China continue to flow almost unabated to Pyongyang."
North Korea insists it will return to multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program only if the U.N. sanctions are lifted.
China, Pyongyang's key ally and economic lifeline, has also been calling for a resumption of the talks, which group the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.
But the prospects for a restart in negotiations have been dampened by U.S. and South Korean accusations that the North torpedoed one of Seoul's warships in March with the loss of 46 lives, a charge Pyongyang denies.
China wants to preserve regional stability
In fact, the sinking of the South Korean ship that triggered renewed interest in sanctions against North Korea was the reason for the commissioning of the report by senior Republican Senator Dick Lugar, the ranking
member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"While the United States presses for elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, China’s primary focus is on preserving regional stability," Lugar said in a statement.
"China’s less than rigorous approach toward implementing sanctions targeting North Korea should be a wake-up call to this White House in the ongoing development of its North Korea strategy,” he said.
The congressional report pointed out that China constitutes a "large gap in the circle of countries" that approved the U.N. sanctions and are expected to implement them.
Beijing's lackluster approach to the sanctions is however understandable.
It is worried that any destablization of North Korea would affect China, including an influx of North Korea refugees into its northern border region.
But as the sanctions fail to have the desired effect, North Korea continues to use its nuclear trump card.
At the weekend, Pyongyang said its nuclear arsenal "serves as a treasured sword" amid reports it could be preparing for a third nuclear test, after conducting atomic blasts in 2006 and 2009.
The claim came amid a visit by a Chinese military delegation and as Pyongyang laid the ground work for the future succession of Kim Jong Un.
North Korea was "entirely right when it opted for having access to nukes", the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a commentary, adding the communist country needed to protect itself.
Written in Washington by Parameswaran Ponnudurai