The leaders of the two Koreas on Thursday rode together in a controversial cable car system which was previously investigated by UN sanctions experts and led to legislative changes in the European Union (EU).
Images of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un released on Thursday showed the two leaders riding in Swiss-Austrian made cable cars acquired by the North sometime between 2014 and 2015 – a purchase which some at the time thought may have violated UN luxury goods sanctions.
The gondola system, including 45 cars and other required mechanisms, was purchased used from an unknown source – likely in China – after being removed from the Austrian Ischgl Silvretta resort in 2014.
An NK Pro investigation found that another Austrian firm called Pro-Alpin bought the system from the Ischgl resort and dismantled it in May 2014, before selling it to a Chinese buyer whose identity the project manager for the company Birgit Seemann would not disclose at the time.
It appears, however, that some of the cars acquired in this purchase were also installed at the existing Mt. Paektu cable car system sometime before November 2016, when they were shown in state media being used by children on a field trip to the mountain.
In images of the cars at both Mt. Paektu and the Masikryong resort, the same discoloration is evident in the shape of the stylized “Ischgl” decals used during their time at the Austrian resort.
Given the timing of their sale and visual evidence of their origin, it was believed at the time that North Korea indirectly purchased the system for use on the mountains and that the cars used in both locations may have violated UN Sanctions, which first prohibited the export of luxury goods to the DPRK in 2006.
But in a 2017 report by the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea, panel members investigating concerns over the gondolas were told by Austrian authorities that the system was not at the time considered illegal under EU law, which didn’t include gondolas on a list of goods defined as “luxury”.
The EU council in charge of enforcing sanctions regulations subsequently updated their definitions in April 2016 to include gondola-lifts and their components.
While each UN member state manages their own definitions of luxury goods and are therefore provided some wiggle room in enforcing sanctions against North Korea, the resolutions themselves began receiving elaborated definitions in 2013, before the Ischgl gondolas were acquired.
DPRK state media has credited a professor at the Kim Chaek University of Technology (KCUT) – head of the Electric Power System Institute Kim Tok Su – with developing the control system for the new “sky-lift” system utilizing the Austrian gondolas at Masikryong.
While KCUT is not designated under UN sanctions, the university includes a nuclear physics department, and has in the past been linked to the country’s nuclear program.
Elsewhere during Moon’s three-day trip to North Korea, he and the South Korean First Lady visited the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang on Wednesday – an entity which is designated under UN sanctions.
Responding to concerns that the visit might constitute a sanctions violation by Moon and other South Koreans in attendance, a member of the UN Sanctions Resolution 1718 Committee told Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Thursday the visit should not be considered a breach of the measures.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyeongyang Press Corps
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