North Korea

How one determined activist is spoiling Kim Jong-un's plans for a top-notch ski resort

Kim Jong-un's winter pleasure zone must overcome dogged determination of Ken Kato to get countries to enforce ban on luxury goods

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 10:09am

Kim Jong-un's plans for a top-notch ski resort face an uphill battle in the face of a vigorous campaign by a Japanese human rights advocate.

For months, Ken Kato, director of Tokyo-based Human Rights in Asia, has been contacting the Japanese embassies of countries that manufacture the equipment essential for making the Masik resort a reality, reminding them to adhere to United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang prohibiting trade in luxury goods.

Switzerland is the latest country to confirm that it will not permit its domestic firms to sell ski lifts to North Korea. Swiss newspaper Le Temps on Monday reported that the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs had blocked a deal valued at 7 million Swiss Francs (HK$58 million) for Bartholet Maschinenbau to provide mechanical chair lifts and cable cars to the Masik resort.

Kato has also written directly to companies in the ski sector around the world and, when he has not been satisfied with the responses, he has gone to the top.

"I first wrote to the minister at the Austrian embassy in Tokyo, but then I contacted the economic minister in Vienna through their website," Kato said. "I got a reply pretty quickly after that and I'm grateful for the Austrian government making its position clear on this issue."

In a letter from Reinhold Mitterlehner, the state economic minister, said Austria was "fully aware" of the "difficult situation in North Korea".

"Please be assured that Austria entirely implements the embargo against North Korea and does its utmost of awareness-raising among potentially concerned parties," the minister added. "We execute the entire embargo in all details with great care and particularly examine the import paragraph on luxury goods. Austria pays special caution to fulfil all its obligations under EU and international law and will carry on pursuing this approach with ambition."

Kato reserves particular concern for Italy and its firms.

"North Korea is trying to import lifts from Leitner Ropeways and I think this is a little bit worrying," he said. "I have written to the Italian government so they are aware of what is going on, but I'm still concerned."

Kato says several Italian businessmen have lucrative links with North Korea and Rome "is not so strict" with firms dealing with Pyongyang.

In July 2009, a plan to sell two luxury Italian yachts to North Korea, apparently for the use of Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il, was halted at the last moment after the anti-fraud police intervened.

Kato intends to renew his campaign against exports from Italy. "It is against the law to export such items to North Korea and the damage would be catastrophic if any Italian company violates the law," he said.

The Masik resort will have a hotel, cable cars, ski gear shops and a heliport, the KCNA state media has reported. Kim ordered that it be completed in time for the skiing season this winter.

South Korean media have reported that US$1.8 billion is being sunk into Kim's pet project, which could be seen as attempt to rival South Korea when it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics.

That price tag may be inflated, Kato said, but the cost would certainly runs into hundreds of millions of dollars, money that should be spent on feeding starving North Koreans.

"This has grown into a very important project for North Korea and Kim has promised it to the people," he said. "If we can stop it going ahead - and this is only in accordance with the UN ban on imports of luxury goods - then it could embarrass and cause a lot of damage to the leadership there."