North Korea Bought $640 Million in Luxury Goods From China in 2017, South Korea Lawmaker Says

October 22, 2018 Updated: October 22, 2018

SEOUL, South KoreaNorth Korea imported at least $640 million worth of luxury goods from China last year, in defiance of U.N. sanctions that outlaw such trade because of North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, a South Korean lawmaker said on Oct. 22.

The United States has urged strict implementation of sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign that Washington has credited with bringing impoverished North Korea to the negotiating table.

Signs have indicated the campaign has been losing steam since North Korea suspended nuclear and missile tests and leader Kim Jong Un vowed steps towards denuclearization at a U.S.–North Korean summit in June, and also as China and Russia called for relaxed sanctions.

“Kim has bought lavish items from China and other places like a seaplane for not only his own family, and also expensive musical instruments, high-quality TVs, sedans, liquor, watches and fur as gifts for the elites who prop up his regime,” opposition lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun said in a statement.

“With the growing loophole, Kim would be able to near his goal of neutralizing sanctions soon, without giving up the nuclear weapons.”

China doesn’t provide breakdowns of its customs figures. Beijing’s customs agency didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Yoon compiled data based on a list of banned items crafted by Seoul, in line with a 2009 U.N. resolution. The 2017 luxury trade volume was down from the 2014 peak of $800 million, but was only a 3.8 percent drop from $666.4 million in 2016, according to Yoon.

The luxury items accounted for 17.8 percent of North Korea’s entire imports from China last year which totaled $3.7 billion, Yoon said.

Purchases of electronic products such as high-end TVs were more than half of the total transactions, worth $340 million, followed by cars with $204 million, and liquor with $35 million.

China’s trade with North Korea from January to August this year tumbled about 58 percent from the year-earlier figure to $1.51 billion, China’s customs agency said last month.

Yoon’s analysis also shows North Korea has funneled more than $4 billion into luxury shopping in China since Kim took power at the end of 2011. Yoon accused China of loosening enforcement of sanctions and criticized South Korea’s recent request for U.N. and U.S. exemptions to restart inter-Korean economic cooperation.

When asked on Oct. 22 about the possibility of discord with the United States over sanctions, a senior official at South Korea’s presidential office said the two countries would “eventually be on the same path” towards denuclearization, though there might be a “procedural difference.”

Last week, Singapore charged one of its citizens, a North Korean, and three companies with supplying prohibited luxury items to North Korea. The charges involve hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of perfumes, wines, and watches, court documents seen by Reuters show.

Chinese entities have previously been spotted illicitly transferring oil to North Korea and allowing North Korean laborers to cross into its borders, among other signs of a cozy relationship.

By Hyonhee Shin