BEIJING • After North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un ordered his army to build a world-class ski resort, the imported equipment for it was soon at hand, including snowmobiles, snowblowers and even a cable car system manufactured by a leading Austrian company.
By almost any estimate, the sale of such items appears to violate the intent of United Nations (UN) sanctions.
The sanctions were meant to punish the North for its nuclear weapons programme - specifically, sanctions targeting luxury goods, intended to cover products like champagne, caviar, yachts and cars.
But China, whose companies were involved in providing the equipment for the Masikryong ski resort, which opened in 2013, told a UN panel that those sanctions did not apply because skiing is a "normal activity" in North Korea, a country where most of the population is impoverished and food shortages are common.
"Skiing is a popular sport for people, and ski equipment or relevant services are not included in the list of prohibited luxury goods," the Chinese said, according to last year's annual report from the UN panel, which monitors sanctions violations.
Weeks after North Korea detonated its fourth nuclear bomb, and days after it said it would soon launch another long-range rocket, the United States and China are still at loggerheads over how - or whether - to deepen sanctions against the isolated nation. And as the example of the skiing equipment shows, even the sanctions currently in place often prove toothless.
The UN sanctions, imposed in 2006 and tightened since then, still allow China to trade with North Korea in vital sectors like oil, banking and shipping - but billions of dollars' worth of luxury items also manage to slip through. Chinese Customs data showed that North Korea imported US$2.09 billion (S$2.9 billion) in luxury goods between 2012 and 2014, according to recent congressional testimony by Ms Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing over who is to blame for North Korea's growing nuclear arsenal burst into the open again last week, after the North said on Tuesday that it would launch a satellite into orbit this month some time between Feb 8 and Feb 25.
Yesterday, Pyongyang brought forward the time frame for the launch to between today and next Sunday, according to the Japanese and South Korean governments.
The US and its allies believe the true purpose of such launches is to eventually develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead.
The Chinese hope to prevent tougher sanctions for fear that the North will become a hostile neighbour, a policy that diplomats said appears to have been shaped by President Xi Jinping last summer.
In talks last week with his Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State John Kerry made little headway in persuading China to toughen sanctions against North Korea, and he warned that the US would most likely move ahead on its own.
Tougher sanctions legislation is moving through the US Congress that would target, among other things, Chinese banks that do business with North Korea.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS