Germany Faces a North Korea Sanctions Violation in Its Own Capital

By Zeke Turner Features Dow Jones Newswires

Germany worked to patch up a violation of United Nations sanctions against North Korea in the heart of its own capital.

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The Democratic People's Republic of Korea for years has been leasing an annex of its embassy in downtown Berlin to a hostel, a deal that became a violation of U.N. sanctions passed in November to forbid North Korea from using diplomatic property for commercial purposes.

The Cityhostel Berlin is less than a mile from the Brandenburg Gate and offers shared rooms to tourists, many of them students arriving by bus, for less than EUR20 ($21.75) a night. It occupies a building that belongs to the North Korean Embassy on its grounds in Berlin. The official embassy is next door, and the area between the two plots is demarcated by a low-hanging chain-link fence.

Now Berlin says it is cracking down on the hostel's use of the building as a sanctions violation.

"The nonstop nuclear threats from the North Korean government worry us greatly," Markus Ederer, a senior official in Germany's Foreign Office, said on Tuesday. "We have to turn up the pressure in order to get North Korea back at the negotiating table," adding, "It means that, more than anything, we have to consistently enforce the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the European Union."

The crackdown comes on the heels of evidence that North Korea has used diplomatic property to support its nuclear program.

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According to an update on sanctions enforcement published in March by the U.N.'s Panel of Experts, a North Korean businessman attempted to use Pyongyang's embassy in Beijing to export a lithium metal that is used to miniaturize nuclear warheads.

Earlier, the country's embassy in Singapore was unmasked as a front for a shipping business, an important source of foreign currency that can be used to purchase materials and bankroll tests.

The new clip of threats coming from North Korea has left the U.S.'s top diplomats pleading with partners to shore up gaps on their home turf.

"We have said this before and it bears repeating: the policy of strategic patience is over," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the U.N. Security Council in April.

Under Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister between 2005 and 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017 and is now Germany's president, the country's Foreign Office carved out a reputation as a proponent of dialogue to solve international crises and a skeptic on the impact of sanctions. Last year before changing office, Mr. Steinmeier said the West should consider phasing out sanctions against Moscow for its interference in Ukraine if there were progress in the peace process there.

Paragraph 18 of United Nations Resolution 2321, passed in November by the Security Council, says: "All Member States shall prohibit the DPRK from using real property that it owns or leases in their territory for any purpose other than diplomatic or consular activities." States like Germany are given 90 days to comply with the sanctions and report their progress back to the U.N.

But since the U.N. sanctions were passed last fall in response to Pyongyang's fifth nuclear test, the hostel has stayed in operation in the heart of Berlin. Reservations for a room were possible on Monday, and the front desk was answering calls Tuesday night.

Starting last week, The Wall Street Journal repeatedly requested information from the German Foreign Ministry about the legality of letting the hostel operate under the latest sanctions.

Officials said they were taking sanctions seriously, but declined to offer a clear explanation for how they were working to close the hostel.

One official said the fact that the lease on the hotel predated the sanctions made it legally difficult to enforce its closure.

But on Tuesday night, less than an hour after the Journal's last request for information, the ministry appeared to change tack. Mr. Ederer's statement appeared in an online report marked "exclusive" in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and entitled "The government wants to toughen sanctions against North-Korea."

Legal experts, however, said the move was a belated catching-up more than a toughening.

"There are two perspectives, one of international law and one of German domestic law," said Andreas Zimmermann, a professor of international law at the University of Potsdam.

From both perspectives, the rental contract appears invalid, Mr. Zimmerman said, but a complex immunity regime applies to diplomatic properties, as outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations from 1961.

The hostel's manager couldn't be reached for comment.

Write to Zeke Turner at Zeke.Turner@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 10, 2017 11:49 ET (15:49 GMT)