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Posted : 2012-04-22 19:10
Updated : 2012-04-22 19:10

Is N. Korea’s leader big fan of luxury items?


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un applauds with top military leaders during an official ceremony for the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung at a stadium in Pyongyang on April 14. / AFP-Yonhap
Kim Jung-un believed to have taste for imported high-end brands

By Park Si-soo

Does North Korea’s new leader Kim Jung-un have a passion for luxury goods as is mostly the case for wealthy South Koreans in his age bracket?

His father Kim Jong-il, who died last December, was infamous for his insatiable appetite for imported luxuries ㅡ Bordeaux wine from France, Mercedes-Benz from Germany and Sapporo beer from Japan among others ㅡ despite the deadly famine in his country.

Unlike his father, little is known about the junior Kim to date. Yet, it seems that the son has inherited his father’s brazen affection for luxuries ㅡ at least in watches.

Such a resemblance was seen during events held in Pyongyang earlier this week to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Stalinist country’s founder Kim
Il-sung.

In some photos Kim, applauding with top military officials during an official ceremony at a Pyongyang stadium on April 14, was wearing a black watch with shiny metal bezel on his left wrist.

These photos were not clear enough to identify its brand. But it was obviously a different model from one he was wearing at another big event held three days before.

On April 11, a watch Kim was wearing during a national conference of the ruling Workers’ Party had a light-brown strap, sea-blue plate and shiny metal bezel.

Although the exact brand of the two watches remain shrouded in mystery, they are largely believed to be hand-made, pricy items imported from Europe.

North Korea experts here said South
Korea’s spy agency has piled together intelligence regarding luxury brands and items beloved by North Korean elite, including Kim, but such information was not immediately available.

Some experts say Kim’s two watches would have been imported from Switzerland, citing his educational background in the European country during his teenage years.

Choi Kwang-ryul, a veteran watch repairman in Seoul, suspects Kim’s black watch to be the ultra-luxury Omega De Ville, priced locally at around 50 million won ($44,000).

“I cannot tell you for sure with the given photos,” Choi said. “If the (black) model is an Omega De Ville with diamond decoration, its price could hover around 50 million won.” But he didn’t rule out the possibility that it could be a mid-priced model with similar shape.

Ha Sang-min, a watch collector running the watch-only blog TP Report, echoed Choi’s view, saying the black watch could be one of the De Ville models. But he said it had some minor differences in detail.

Some watch-savvy Internet users suspected it to be Swatch Quartz. “It’s similar with my Swatch Quartz that I bought in Switzerland,” a blogger said.

The nuclear-armed North has been banned from importing luxury goods as part of U.N. sanctions slapped on it in 2009 for a second underground nuclear test. Nevertheless Pyongyang has maintained the inflow of such items using its diplomats, businessmen and unofficial trading routes, Seoul officials said.

According to U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia (RFA), North Korea imported 229 watches and nine unidentified components for repair from Switzerland between January and May in 2011.

Citing a report from a Swiss association of watch manufacturers, the RFA said 55 of the watches were battery-powered and the remaining 174 were spring-driven models and their average price was $198.

Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the ruling Saenuri Party said North Korea spent $272.1 million in 2008, $322.5 million in 2009 and $446.1 million in 2010 on importing luxury items.

Yoon had accused Kim Jong-il, who died in December, of having engaged in “gift politics” by showering top aides and the elite with luxury goods to win loyalty to him and his family.

Prior to his 69th birthday in February last year, the lawmaker said, North Korean officials purchased such luxury brand items as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Channel en masse in Beijing.

A defector said top North Korean military officials were respectively given a luxury sedan ㅡ a Mercedes, Audi or Toyota ㅡ and a Rolex watch from their “Dear Leader” in 2003. In 1998, Kim gave Japan’s Seiko watches to high-ranking military officers to celebrate his birthday, according to a defector.

The North had a failed attempted to import through China two Italian-made yachts worth more than $15 million and destined for Kim Jong-il in 2009, according to the U.S. Treasury, which in 2010 blacklisted several North Korean businesses and individuals.

Figures through the end of 2010 in the U.N. Commodity Trade Statistics Database provide a glimpse of the North Korean elite’s affluent life.

Among the imports of liquor by North Korea from Hong Kong in 2010, were 839 bottles of unidentified spirits, worth an average of $159 each, and 17 bottles of “spirits obtained by distilling grape wine or grape marc” worth $145 each, according to the U.N. figures.

In 2010, North Korea also imported 14 color video screens from the Netherlands ㅡ worth an average $8,147 each ㅡ and about 50,000 bottles of wine from Chile, France, South Africa and other countries, as well as 3,559 sets of videogames from China. One of the most striking figures is a dramatic increase in the imports of mobile telephones ㅡ ownership of which was once considered a crime.

In 2010 alone, the country imported 433,183 mobile phones, almost all from China, and with an average value of $81 each. Egyptian telecoms company Orascom, which launched North Korea's first and only mobile network in 2008, said that its North Korean network had 809,000 subscribers at the end of the third quarter of 2011.

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