GENEVA – Switzerland said Monday that it had blocked a deal to sell top-notch ski lifts to North Korea, in a move that could delay what is seen as leader Kim Jong Un’s pet ski resort project.
Swiss company Bartholet Maschinenbau (BMF) had reportedly all but agreed to sell mechanical chairlifts and cable cars to Pyongyang to help fulfill Kim’s vision of a “world class” ski resort, being built as rival South Korea prepares to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
But Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said it had blocked the deal, reportedly worth 7 million Swiss francs ($7.6 million), after the Swiss government in early July expanded its sanctions on North Korea.
Confirming a weekend report by the SonntagsZeitung weekly, SECO spokeswoman Marie Avet explained in an email why selling supplies to the Masik Pass resort project in northeastern North Korea fell under the expanded sanctions on luxury exports to the country.
“This is obviously a prestigious propaganda project for the regime,” she wrote, adding that judging from North Korea’s political-economic situation, “it is inconceivable that this resort will be used by the general public.”
The government in Bern therefore “considers it inappropriate for Swiss companies to participate in such projects,” she said.
According to a Monday report in the Swiss daily Le Temps, the world’s leading ski lift provider, Austrian Doppelmayr, had already turned down the North Korean order “for political reasons,” as had French Pomagalski.
BMF, which could not be immediately reached for comment, had meanwhile reportedly accepted the order, but to be safe, had checked with SECO in early June that the deal could go through.
SECO first advised against the deal but said it was not illegal, only to revise that position after the government expanded its North Korea sanctions last month.
“Such exports were prohibited on July 3,” Avet said.
North Korea has a special link to Switzerland — Kim Jong Un attended secondary school near Bern, without revealing his true identity, and reportedly learned to ski on the slopes in the small Alpine country.
The Masik ski resort has been heavily promoted by the North’s propaganda machine since Kim visited it in June and proclaimed that the facility, with 110 km of multilevel ski runs, a hotel, heliport and cable cars, should be completed by the end of the year.
North softens language
North Korea on Tuesday criticized South Korea-U.S. military drills with milder-than-usual language that’s seen as a sign of its interest in keeping up diplomacy.
North Korea typically speaks with warlike rhetoric against any South Korea-U.S. exercises because it considers them as a rehearsal for invasion. But it has not made any such harsh statements against the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills the United States and South Korea began Monday.
On Tuesday, Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea broke the country’s earlier silence and called the training “big anti-(North Korea) war drills” and warned South Korea could face an unspecified “uncontrollably catastrophic consequence.”
An unidentified North Korean committee spokesman also accused South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye of making “bellicose remarks” Monday by calling for a military readiness to ensure peace. The spokesman said via state media that Park’s comments “chill the hard-won atmosphere for dialogue” between the Koreas.
North Korea has made similar threats in the past, and Tuesday’s language is not as intimidating as its previous rhetoric such as threats of nuclear wars the country made in the spring.