The Bush administration wants North Korea’s attention, so like a scolding parent it’s trying to make it tougher for that country’s eccentric leader to buy iPods, plasma televisions and Segway electric scooters.
The U.S. government’s first-ever effort to use trade sanctions to personally aggravate a foreign president expressly targets items believed to be favored by Kim Jong Il or presented by him as gifts to the roughly 600 loyalist families who run the communist government.
Kim, who engineered a secret nuclear weapons program, has other options for obtaining the high-end consumer electronics and other items he wants.
But the list of proposed luxury sanctions, obtained by The Associated Press, aims to make Kim’s swanky life harder: No more cognac, Rolex watches, cigarettes, artwork, expensive cars, Harley Davidson motorcycles or even personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis.
The new ban would extend even to music and sports equipment. The 5-foot-3 Kim is an enthusiastic basketball fan; then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented him with a ball signed by Michael Jordan during a rare diplomatic trip in 2000.
'Creative' new concept
Experts said the effort — being coordinated under the United Nations — would be the first ever to curtail a specific category of goods not associated with military buildups or weapons designs, especially one so tailored to annoy a foreign leader. U.S. officials acknowledge that enforcing the ban on black-market trading would be difficult.
The population in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated economies, is impoverished and routinely suffers widescale food shortages. The new trade ban would forbid U.S. shipments there of Rolexes, French cognac, plasma TVs, yachts and more — all items favored by Kim but unattainable by most of the country.
“It’s a new concept; it’s kind of creative,” said William Reinsch, a former senior Commerce Department official who oversaw trade restrictions with North Korea during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Reinsch predicted governments will comply with the new sanctions, but agreed that efforts to block all underground shipments will be frustrated.
“The problem is there has always been and will always be this group of people who work at getting these goods illegally,” Reinsch said. Small electronics, such as iPods or laptops, are “untraceable and available all over the place,” he said. U.S. exports to North Korea are paltry, amounting to only $5.8 million last year.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the trade group for the liquor industry, said it supports the administration’s policies toward North Korea. The Washington-based Personal Watercraft Industry Association said it also supports the U.S. sanctions — although it bristled at the notion a Jet Ski was a luxury.
“The thousands of Americans and Canadians who build, ship and sell personal watercraft are patriots first,” said Maureen Healey, head of the trade group. She said it endorsed the ban “because of the narrow nature of this ban and the genuine dangers that responsible world governments are trying to stave off.”
Faithful bureaucrats given luxury goods
Defectors to South Korea have described Kim giving expensive gifts of cars, liquor and Japanese-made appliances to his most faithful bureaucrats.
“If you take away one of the tools of his control, perhaps you weaken the cohesion of his leadership,” said Robert J. Einhorn, a former senior State Department official who visited North Korea with Albright and dined extravagantly there. “It can’t hurt, but whether it works, we don’t know.”
Responding to North Korea’s nuclear test Oct. 9, the U.N. Security Council voted to ban military supplies and weapons shipments — sanctions already imposed by the United States. It also banned sales of luxury goods but so far has left each country to define such items. Japan included beef, caviar and fatty tuna, along with expensive cars, motorcycles, cameras and more. Many European nations are still working on their lists.
U.S. intelligence officials who helped produce the Bush administration’s list said Kim prefers Mercedes, BMW and Cadillac cars; Japanese and Harley Davidson motorcycles; Hennessy XO cognac from France and Johnny Walker Scotch whisky; Sony cameras and Japanese air conditioners.
Kim is reportedly under his physician’s orders to avoid hard liquor and prefers French wines. He also is said to own an extensive movie library of more than 10,000 titles and prefers films about James Bond and Godzilla, along with Clint Eastwood’s 1993 drama, “In the Line of Fire,” and Whitney Houston’s 1992 love story, “The Bodyguard.”
Much of the U.S. information about Kim’s preferences comes from defectors, including Kenji Fujimoto, the Japanese chef who fled in 2001 and wrote a book about his time with the North Korean leader.