Photos obtained by NK Pro reveal North Korea’s new gondolas at the Masikryong ski resort originally came from Austria, in what could constitute a breach of UN luxury goods sanctions and EU regulations.

A recently installed cable car system now running up the Taehwa Peak in the DPRK’s Kangwon Province once ferried passengers around the high-end Ischgl resort on the border between Austria and Switzerland, as part of a network of 45 ski lifts and cable cars there.

Coming amid momentum for fresh United Nations sanctions to respond to the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test, the gondola is the latest in a string of controversial purchases by the North Korean resort, which also include skiing equipment and specialized machinery sourced from Europe and Canada.

FROM THE ALPS TO MASIKRYONG

‘The gondola in the picture looks like a Doppelmayr detachable gondola system from the ’80s’

A photograph of the inside of one of the gondolas shows they were original built by Austrian company Doppelmayr. The Wolfurt-based business now joins a dubious club of Western ski equipment providers, whose products have trickled across international borders on their way to the slopes of Masikryong.

Photo inside Masikryong's new gondola. Source: NK News

Photo inside Masikryong’s new gondola. Source: NK Pro

“The fact is that Doppelmayr has never built a detachable gondola in North Korea. The gondola in the picture looks like a Doppelmayr detachable gondola system from the ’80s,” Ekkehard Assmann at the company’s PR and marketing department told NK Pro.

“Most of the installations we have built the last 20 to 30 years are replacement installations … But (we) do not know whether the old ones are scrapped or sold.”

The images appear to corroborate Doppelmayr’s claims that Masikryong’s newest addition is not a newly built product. The cable car’s interiors are scratched, and their design – a TCD4 Pardorama – has since fallen out of fashion in Europe’s resorts.

“This kind of gondola, it’s very old. It was very popular in the eighties and at the start of the ’90s. You can buy 20 gondolas from another ski resort, you only change the stickers,” an administrator at the Remontees-Mecanique.net, a cable car and ski-lift specialist website told NK Pro.

COMING UNSTUCK

Photos of the cable cars’ exteriors do indeed show the stickers have been peeled away, but have not been replaced by any North Korean branding. The imprint left behind clearly matches the logo of their previous home, the Ischgl Silvretta resort in Austria.

Further comparison of the images both in and outside the gondolas show other similarities.

Notably, an image published on the DPRK 360 Facebook page on January 24 of the gondola guidelines is a word-for-word copy of that in an earlier photo taken above the Austrian slopes.

Comparison showing the stickers removed from the gondolas. Source (top), www.remontees-mecaniques.net, (bottom) NK News

Comparison showing the stickers removed from the gondolas. Source (top), www.remontees-mecaniques.net, (bottom) | NK Pro

“If we think about a gondola ending up in North Korea in 2016, they can reuse only an old model removed two to four years ago. There are not many examples of gondolas like this which stopped operating recently. So this one is from Ischgl, it certainly is the right one,” said the gondola website administrator who used and photographed the gondolas when they were still in Europe.

The company which runs the Ischgl’s network of cable cars confirmed to NK Pro that one section of their Pardorama gondola system was recently replaced.

“In the year 2013 we decided to replace the two section cable car … with a modern tri-cable detachable gondola (3S) system in only one section,” Markus Siegele from Silvrettseilbahn told NK Pro.

Another Austrian firm called Pro-Alpin bought and dismantled that section before selling it to buyers from China. Silvrettseilbahn’s website also includes photos of the cable car’s disassembly in May 2014.

“We didn’t sell the gondola system to North Korea, we never sold or delivered parts to this country and we will not do it in future … The system was picked up by Chinese customer in Austria,” Birgit Seemann, project manager at Pro-Alpin told NK Pro.

The company would not disclose further details on the sale or respond to questions about whether they had carried out any due diligence on the buyers, citing business confidentiality.

Comparison of the labels inside the gondola. Source (left): NK News, (right) DPRK 360

Comparison of the labels inside the gondola. Source (left): NK Pro, (right) DPRK 360

ALL SLOPES LEAD TO CHINA

Pro-Alpin’s website, however, lists the Iscghl gondola in their 2014 references section, where the company claims to have been involved in numerous aspects of the project including dismantling, sale, logistics and montage.

The site also adds the cable cars are now in China, though does not specify which resort. Further details on when the equipment was transferred over to the DPRK are scarce, but satellite imagery taken late last year illustrate the gondola’s construction at Masikryong already underway.

Photos of the cable car system operating in the Austrian resort show much of the associated machinery and cables were also apparently transferred in bulk to North Korea. And while some elements of the system’s construction are relatively straight forward to install, other parts require specialist training and oversight.

“Yes it needs specialist knowledge (to install), and for the cable. You must join the two parts of the cable in one, and this is a specific job, and it’s difficult to find a specialist for that,” said the administrator of the gondola equipment website.

Such experts, the source continued, could be found in China, who reportedly already aided North Korea with the resort’s construction.

The gondola's lower mechanisms in Austria (top) and North Korea (bottom). Source (top) http://www.remontees-mecaniques.net, (bottom) DPRK 360

The gondola’s lower mechanisms in Austria and North Korea. Source (top) http://www.remontees-mecaniques.net, (bottom) DPRK 360

SANCTIONS SLALOM

The Austrian cable cars now join Italian made snow vehicles, Swedish snow blowers and Canadian skidoos at North Korea’s resort. While European laws explicitly mention skiing equipment on the list of goods prohibited for export to North Korea, the UN’s definition of sanctioned luxury goods is not quite so specific.

“The supply of luxury goods to the DPRK, whether from China or elsewhere, was banned in October 2006 under UN Security Council Resolution 1718,” said a North Korea sanctions expert who requested anonymity for professional reasons.

“I am pretty sure that skiing equipment has been deemed to be a luxury good by the 1718 committee, though I can’t remember when the precedent came up.  So if China has supplied skiing equipment to the DPRK this is a violation, not a loophole.”

China’s presence in the supply chain between North Korea and Austria however would likely have a bearing on the application of European sanctions laws.

‘There is a constant problem of EU firms selling goods legitimately to clients in other countries than the DPRK, who then sell them on to the DPRK’

North Korea’s neighbor and primary trade partner does not have any specific luxury goods it classes as illegal for export to the DPRK, leaving the door open for the potential shipment of items banned in other countries.

“(The shipment from Austria) is also a violation but it does not necessarily mean that Austria has broken international law.  There is a constant problem of EU firms selling goods legitimately to clients in other countries than the DPRK, who then sell them on to the DPRK. This happens a lot with, for example, Scotch whisky, and is very difficult to prevent,” the sanctions expert added.

The possible sanctions breach comes following North Korea’s most recent nuclear test earlier this month, bringing with it an added focus on North Korea’s overall sanctions environment. Recent reports indicate the U.S. is currently pushing for China to enact stronger sanctions on the DPRK, which have little chance of finding backing in Beijing.

Nonetheless, this is not the first time Masikryong’s ski lifts have attracted the wrong kind of attention, with the Swiss government blocking a $7 million ski-lift export to the DPRK nearly three years ago.

While Switzerland is not part of the EU and as so does not run afoul of EU regulations for exports of other items like watches, it still cancelled the deal in August 2013. At the time, the country’s foreign minister called Masikryong a “prestigious propaganda project for the regime” adding it was “inconceivable” the lifts would be used by the general public.

Additional reporting by Chad O’Carroll

Featured image: NK Pro