Italy unlaces North Korea attempt to smuggle tap shoes

UNITED NATIONS Wed Jun 1, 2011 10:49am EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Italy foiled an attempt by North Korea to import tap-dancing shoes in breach of a U.N. ban on the sale of luxury goods to Pyongyang, according to a U.N. report on the enforcement of sanctions against the North.

The report said that many banned goods reached North Korea via an unnamed trans-shipment hub, which Western U.N. envoys speaking on condition of anonymity said was located in China.

Although it has been leaked to the media, China has objected to the official publication of the U.N. expert panel's report, Security Council diplomats said.

"In December 2010, a shipment of high-quality tap-dancing shoes was blocked at Orio al Serio Airport (Milan)," said the report by the so-called U.N. Panel of Experts, which monitors compliance with U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

A U.N. diplomat told Reuters on Tuesday that the seized shipment involved several dozen pairs of tap-dancing shoes. He said that it was not clear how the tap shoes might fit into North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's lavish lifestyle, which includes grandiose stage performances by North Korean performers.

Two rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests ban the sale of luxury items to Kim Jong-il's government. Pyongyang was also hit with an arms embargo and is forbidden from trading in nuclear and missile technology.

Italy has seized other banned luxury items the leaders of impoverished North Korea unsuccessfully attempted to purchase in recent years, including high-quality cognac and whiskey worth 12,000 euros ($17,250) and equipment for a 1,000-person cinema valued at some 130,000 euros, the report said.

In December an Austrian man was fined 3.3 million euros over the sale of luxury goods to North Korea, including yachts.

The U.N. panel's report said that Pyongyang has also attempted to skirt the embargo on luxury goods by purchasing a dozen Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment, more than three dozen pianos and cosmetics. Some of the items were successfully shipped to North Korea, it said.

"Most of these luxury goods reached or would have reached (North) Korea after transiting through a neighboring trans-shipment hub," the U.N. panel's report said.

Diplomats told Reuters that the "trans-shipment hub" was in China. They said that China has also been a transit hub for missile technology transfers between Iran and North Korea, as detailed in the same U.N. report.

The panel said it was collecting information on other possible violations of the ban on luxury items involving "cars, watches, spirits or food."

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)