A German rabbit breeder who sold 12 rabbits to North Korea to breed giant bunnies said he won't be exporting any more to the reclusive communist country because he suspects they have been eaten.
Karl Szmolinsky, 68, sent the spectacularly huge rabbits, which are as big as dogs, to North Korea late last year and had said in January he might deliver more to assist the country's program to alleviate food shortages through rabbit breeding.
He had been due to travel to North Korea after Easter to provide advice on setting up a breeding facility for the rabbits, which can produce around seven kilos of meat.
But his trip was cancelled at short notice. Szmolinsky said he got a call from a North Korean official last Thursday informing him that the trip was off because the government was unhappy with the way in which a local Berlin newspaper had reported about the deal.
"I think the animals aren't alive anymore. I was due to go and inspect the animals and look at the facility. North Korea won't be getting anything from me any more, they shouldn't even bother asking," Szmolinsky told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They kept delaying the trip. I would have liked to go."
The North Korean embassy in Berlin denied that the rabbits were dead and said no one at the embassy had contacted Szmolinsky. "The rabbits aren't intended to be eaten, they are for breeding purposes," a spokesman said.
Szmolinsky, who has been breeding rabbits for 47 years, has won prizes for his bunnies. Robert, a 10.5 kilo "German gray giant" that won a prize at a rabbit show last year, was among the consignment of four males and eight females dispatched to North Korea. Robert's son, Robert II, is still safe in his hutch in the eastern German town of Eberswalde.
Szmolinsky said he suspected Robert I and his fellow bunnies had been eaten by top officials and that that was the real reason why he wasn't getting a visa. "That's an assumption, not an assertion," he added. "But they're not getting any more."
Szmolinsky had made the North Koreans a special price of €80 per rabbit instead of the usual €200 to €250. He had said in January that the 12 rabbits, capable of producing 60 babies a year, were being kept in a petting zoo in the North Korean capital Pyongyang pending his arrival.
Other buyers lining up
Szmolinsky's deal with North Korea attracted worldwide media coverage and brought him orders from around the world.
He has been in preliminary talks with potential buyers in China, Russia, Cameroon and the United States. "The Russians wanted 400 rabbits, there's no way I could deliver that many," said Szmolinsky, who produces around 90 rabbits a year. "I'm getting a delegation from China in June or July and have been told that I may be asked to go to Shanghai to provide advice."
North Korea's state-run news agency had reported in September that people were being encouraged to breed rabbits for food. The country has admitted to food shortages of a million tons, the United Nations World Food Program said last week.
In the absence of better donor support, millions were vulnerable to hunger, the UN warned. North Korea suffered a famine in the mid-1990s that killed as many as 2.5 million people, and has since suffered chronic food shortages.
It had been unclear from the start how Szmolinsky's bunnies would help given their own voracious appetite for top-quality vegetables.