South split over ban on luxury goods to N. Korea

The Baltimore Sun

SEOUL, South Korea -- When South Koreans observe the world's attempt to choke the flow of French cognac, designer watches, flashy cars and other luxuries to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, they find themselves in a familiar situation.

Bitterly divided.

The call by the United Nations Security Council to ban exports of luxury goods to North Korea has been met with a certain satisfaction in capitals such as Washington and Tokyo, landing at least a quick jab in negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear program that resemble boxers in an endless clinch.

But in South Korea, where there is an ongoing, very loud argument over how to handle the troublesome neighbor to the north, slapping sanctions on luxury goods has become just one more thing to quarrel over.

To South Korean hard-liners, targeting Kim's rich tastes is a welcome declaration by the international community that a leader who splurges on luxuries while his people starve is morally unfit to govern.

Cutting access to items such as flat-screen TVs and jet skis, they argue, will crimp Kim's leadership style, which includes inviting his top cadre of generals and Workers Party bosses to lavish parties where gifts are dispensed as a sign of being on the inside.

"It might seem silly, but the fact is, the way he maintains power is through rewards and punishment," said Sohn Kwang Joo, managing editor of The Daily NK, a Seoul-based Web site with hard-line views on the North Korean dictatorship. "No, it's not going to have much effect by itself, because these items will get in many other ways. But raising luxury goods says that the whole world now sees the reality of Kim Jong Il's regime and that it must be changed."

Yet, other South Koreans say that's just what they're worried about - that the ban on luxury goods is part of a U.S.-led campaign to topple Kim rather than to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

The critics say it is preposterous to argue that loyalty to a dictator can be bought with a Rolex watch. Operating on the theory that an angry Kim is a dangerous Kim, they warn that separating the North's leader from his favorite luxury items will only annoy him, making the peninsula a more dangerous place.

"This is just propaganda," said Jung Chung Rae, a lawmaker in the ruling Uri Party who has traveled to North Korea 10 times and says the officials he meets all live austere lifestyles. "There is no meaning in having a sanction on luxury goods."

The dispute over the ban came into sharper focus this week with the release of Washington's list of goods that it believes Kim will miss most. Running from iPods to furs, the list was a requirement of the Oct. 14 Security Council resolution that responded to North Korea's underground nuclear test. The resolution barred shipments of nuclear- and missile-related technologies to North Korea but also tacked on the luxury goods ban and told all U.N. members to list targeted items within 30 days.

That deadline passed with only a few countries having decided which goods to ban. The European Union, which satisfies a large part of Kim's gourmet tastes, says it will agree on a list by mid- December.

Among the other laggards is the government of South Korea. President Roh Moo Hyun has endorsed the luxury goods ban in principle. But in practice, Korean officials say they have nothing to ban.

"We don't have a luxury goods trade with North Korea at all," said presidential spokeswoman Sun Mira, who says none of South Korea's sophisticated electronics go directly to the North. "They have a very patchy cellphone network, so there goes the market for one of our biggest state-of-the-art products," she said.

The luxury goods issue reflects the wider ambivalence in South Korea on what to do about Kim. The liberal Seoul government is committed to sustaining the eight-year-old policy of engaging North Korea with economic inducements and increased cross-border contacts, a feeling that extends even to some conservatives who are otherwise critical of the government.

"The alternative to dialogue is forced reunification," said conservative lawmaker Go Jin Hwa, who says the greatest threat to peace is an unstable North Korea. "I urge anyone who thinks otherwise to be patient and not to be anxious."

But many here counter that the South Korean desire to avoid offending Kim carries it own risks.

"Many South Koreans have this underlying illusion that if they continue to help North Korea, the regime will change," said Sohn. "But if we remain afraid of angering Kim and do not impose these sanctions, he will only feel stronger and the threat will increase."

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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