Leaders' luxuries back in spotlight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2009, 12:00am

The luxurious lives led by Kim Jong-il and his tiny elite are set to face tougher scrutiny after Sunday's rocket launch by North Korea.

With international powers split over the need to punish Pyongyang for its most extensive test of the Taepodong-2 missile, poorly administered existing sanctions against Mr Kim's hermit state are swinging back into focus.

China and Russia - both warning against international overreaction - as well as South Korea and even Japan are expected to face pressure from the US and other western nations over the need to enforce properly a ban on luxury-goods exports to North Korea.

The sanctions were passed by the UN Security Council amid considerable fanfare and international co-operation after North Korea's first test of a nuclear weapon in October 2006.

Contained in Security Council Resolution 1718 that also tightened any trade in military and missile equipment and technology with Pyongyang, the luxury-goods ban was seen as a way of targeting the tiny military and bureaucratic elite that keeps the Kim dynasty secure. The freezing of North Korean accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia a year earlier under intense pressure from the US Treasury was seen as part of the same drive.

Influential Republican US Senator John McCain urged total compliance with the luxury-goods ban as he ended a brief trip to Hong Kong yesterday.

Dismissing calls not to overreact, the defeated presidential candidate said: 'Maybe it is time we heard from Russia and China: 'We will act with you to impose sanctions that will stop activities that are clearly in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.'

'The Chinese have been less than committed to restraining North Korea's activities.'

Ralph Cossa, head of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum think-tank in Hawaii, said it was clear that North Korea's neighbours were not aggressively pursuing existing sanctions.

'They continue to provide North Korea a lifeline with few, if any, strings attached,' he said. 'It is a pretty safe bet [Kim's reported stroke] was not caused by cognac withdrawal.' Before a reported stroke left him weak last year, Mr Kim lived a gourmand's lifestyle while his nation starved.

Diplomats said it was an open secret that little firm action on luxury goods had been taken across East Asia.

'All our evidence suggests the elites are still living in comparative luxury while the bulk of the population suffers,' one envoy said.

Dozens of North Korean trading ships still ply regional waters, backed by small trading companies - some operating in Hong Kong. North Korea's tramp steamers have largely stayed away in recent times after a string of high-profile detentions that coincided with the nuclear test.

A Hong Kong government spokesman confirmed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had instructed the city to implement 1718 in November 2006. Regulations were gazetted locally seven months later.

The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said yesterday that so far no enforcement action had been taken under the regulations.