UN says North Korea defied sanctions with luxury vehicles

Published March 13, 2019, 7:35 AM

by Patrick Garcia

By Agence France-Presse

UN sanctions monitors are investigating Kim Jong Un’s luxury purchases of a Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz limousines and Lexus four-wheel-drive vehicles rolled out during the North Korean leader’s recent international meetings, the head of the panel told AFP Tuesday.

UN sanctions monitors are investigating North Korea's use of luxury vehicles such as Lexus SUVs at the inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and Kim Jong Un in September (AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN)
UN sanctions monitors are investigating North Korea’s use of luxury vehicles such as Lexus SUVs at the inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and Kim Jong Un in September (AFP/ MANILA BULLETIN)

Kim drew the attention of sanctions experts when he turned up at a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang in October in a brand-new Rolls-Royce Phantom limousine.

At the Singapore summit with President Donald Trump in June, Kim’s entourage was ferried in a fleet of Mercedes-Benz luxury cars, none of which had license plates.

And a number of Lexus LX570 all-wheel drive luxury vehicles were used by the North Korean delegation at an inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September.

“The North Koreans procure what they want. They get the best when they need it,” said Hugh Griffiths, who for the past five years has been the coordinator of the UN panel of experts investigating sanctions-busting by North Korea.

The Security Council has barred North Korea from exporting coal and other commodities, curbed deliveries of oil and fuel and restricted banking, among other measures aimed at choking off revenue to Pyongyang’s weapons program.

The sale of luxury goods including high-end cars, yachts and jewelry to North Korea has been banned since 2013, and the list of lavish items has been extended in subsequent sanctions resolutions.

The use of the swanky, expensive cars at summits was seen as a brazen display by Kim of his defiance of international sanctions, at a time when North Korea has appealed for UN help to deal with food shortages.

“Violating sanctions is bad behavior and such obvious violations at international events aren’t helpful, in my view, for enforcing of sanctions,” Griffiths said.

“You don’t want to make a mockery of the sanctions.”

The UN panel released a report on Tuesday that detailed highly-sophisticated evasion tactics used by North Korea to circumvent the sweeping sanctions imposed for its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

 Kim ‘in a box’
After providing Rolls-Royce with photos of the Phantom, the company said it appeared to have been produced between 2012 and 2017 at its British plant in Goodwood, the report said.

The investigation continues to determine how the Phantom, listed at a price of about $450,000 in car trade publications, was shipped to Pyongyang.

The fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles was sent from a US port in California to Hong Kong at the direction of a Chinese businessman, George Ma, whose company Seajet has ties to North Korea’s Air Koryo national airline.

Asked about the Lexus vehicles, Toyota told the panel that it had not exported them to North Korea and that the vehicles probably were bought through back channels.

Despite the loopholes, Griffiths said the sanctions — the most comprehensive imposed on any country by the Security Council — had put Kim “in a box” and forced him to expend major efforts to circumvent the restrictions.

“They are getting around them, but it’s not sustainable,” said Griffiths, who will be leaving his post next month.

One of North Korea’s key weapons in battling sanctions is its fleet of vessels, which have been renamed, placed under foreign flags and disguised to avoid detection of illegal cargo.

Pyongyang has been able to continue selling banned commodities such as coal and to secure deliveries of fuel through ship-to-ship transfers in international waters, according to the panel’s findings.

“It’s crazy what is happening in international waters now. It’s essentially anarchy,” said Griffiths.

The panel has recommended that governments put pressure on commodity traders, insurers, flag-states and global banks to keep closer watch over vessels used in sanctions-busting.