Kim Jong Il Goes Shopping Another Toy for the Gluttonous Dictator

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il isn't just playing around with his country's latest products, atom bombs, anymore. He also has a penchant for high-quality German goods.
Von Beat Balzli

The order came as a big surprise to the sales staff at the all-terrain vehicle manufacturer Kässbohrer Geländefahrzeuge in Laupheim, Germany. In fact, they thought it was a joke at first. But the customer, who had mailed the request from an address in the Italian capital, was deadly serious. He wrote that he wanted to buy the Model 100, the smallest of Kässbohrer's PistenBully special-purpose vehicles, but with one modification: it had to come with a Mercedes Benz engine. The customer was an official at the North Korean embassy in Rome.

What on earth did communist dictator Kim Jong Il's poverty-stricken realm want with a German-made snow groomer? With whom exactly did the despot plan to go sledding?

The southern German company delivered the snow groomer in June 2003, and the customer promptly paid the purchase price of €98,000. Finally, a German shipping company transported the vehicle to a region of North Korea near the Chinese border, where snow is plentiful. Kässbohrer's mechanic arrived a few days later. The German company takes its service seriously.

In freezing temperatures, and under the watchful eyes of military guards, the German mechanic assembled the huge, caterpillar-like device and then taught the slope attendant how to drive the monster. "It was a hard trip for him," says one of the mechanic's coworkers.

Hardship is a relative term, especially when one considers that the North Korean people spend their lives staggering from one famine to the next. But while bad economic management routinely leads to humanitarian disasters, the diminutive dictator and his sybaritic entourage of obedient party officials have been living it up with imported Western luxury and entertainment goods for years, including the expensive equipment for their very own ski resort.

But in the wake of North Korea's underground test detonation of a nuclear bomb  a few weeks ago, the country's unscrupulous leadership can expect to be running into a few obstacles if it hopes to continue enjoying its decadent lifestyle. A few days after the explosion, the United Nations Security Council imposed financial sanctions and an embargo on luxury goods.

The ban on luxury goods is intended to hit the dictator where it hurts, cutting off supply channels to feed Kim's seemingly boundless gluttony. As his personal chef revealed in a book about his experiences working for Kim, the dictator with the predilection for platform shoes and oversized sunglasses had no qualms about spending $15,000 on sea urchins.

A broad interpretation of the term "luxury goods" will not only affect Swiss luxury watchmakers, but also quite a few German companies. That's because Germany is one of North Korea's seven most important trading partners. In 2005 Germany exported goods worth about €51 million to the reclusive leader's realm -- not a huge sum for the Germans, but certainly a lot for North Korea.

A glance at foreign trade statistics shows that German exports to North Korea are no longer limited to mundane pumps, milling machines and electric motors. The list now includes everything from cases of beer, whisky, gin, vodka and Mosel white wine to strollers, handmade glasses, grand pianos and violins, even Christmas tree decorations, chandeliers and sculptures. Indeed, orders for well over €1 million are routinely posted under the categories of "oil paintings, water colors, pastel drawings" and "carousels, swing sets and shooting galleries."

Is all of this for Kim? Or is some of it intended for his entourage and foreign diplomats? Could the rest be going to Chinese who use their porous border with North Korea to circumvent their own high taxes on imports? Hardly anyone in Germany would venture to answer these sensitive questions. Even experts at the Hamburg-based German Asia-Pacific Business Association have refused to comment on the issue. In fact, the organization has yet to release its latest report on North Korea.

But Hans-Joachim Schnitger, a businessman from the northern German port city of Bremen, is more than happy to discuss his activities in Kim's Korea. His company, Helia, supplies goods to diplomats worldwide. This May, Helia began supplying merchandise to a recently opened Euroshop in Pyongyang, where affluent North Koreans use their hard currency to buy imported goods, including "their favorites, German products like cheese and processed meats," says Schnitger. Name brand cognacs are also available, starting at €30.

"We received an inquiry from the North Korean embassy in Berlin in December 2004," says Schnitger. Then the North Koreans even sent over an official to inspect the Bremen company's facilities. Schnitger has high hopes of expanding his business with the North Koreans. "They are very nice people," he says, praising his new trading partners. "Besides, they have a wonderful golf course and a very nice clubhouse in Pyongyang."

Like most German exporters, Schnitger uses Müller + Partner, a freight forwarding company based in the central German city of Fulda, to ship his products to the North Korean capital. The company's agent in Pyongyang is a former employee of North Korea's foreign trade ministry. Industry insiders say Müller's current contacts are the result of close relationships in the past between the North Koreans and the former East German foreign trade organization. When asked about historical ties, one of the company's directors claimed that he had "no knowledge of previous operations," nor was he willing to discuss the content of current shipments to Pyongyang.

Müller also shipped Kässbohrer's PistenBully. But the North Korean government opted to go with an Austrian lift manufacturer, Doppelmayr, when it came time to order the equipment for the ski resort's chair lifts.

According to Ekkehard Assmann, Doppelmayr's director of marketing, "the military was there and helped out in the construction work." That's the nice thing about dictatorships: there are always plenty of willing workers.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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