Sanctions aimed at Kim's stomach may miss target

The Associated PressJune 4, 2009 

  • A few chefs, defectors and foreign officials have gotten a rare peek into Kim Jong Il's culinary world. Among them:

    Ermanno Furlanis, an Italian chef, was flown to North Korea in the late 1990s to teach cooks how to make pizza for the Dear Leader. As they studied how to bake the perfect pizza, a famine was raging outside Kim's kitchens that would eventually kill as many as 2 million people. Furlanis said the widespread suffering, caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement, was hidden from him.

    Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian presidential envoy, wrote a book, "The Orient Express," about Kim's train trip through Russia in 2001. Kim's 16-car private train was loaded with crates of French wine, and live lobsters were delivered in advance to stations, said Pulikovsky, who accompanied Kim.

    A Japanese sushi chef who used the pen name Kenji Fujimoto wrote a 2003 memoir about his 10 years preparing food for Kim. Fujimoto said he traveled the world for the leader, buying Czech beer, Chinese melons, fish in Japan, Danish pork and papayas in Thailand. Kim's wine cellar was stocked with 10,000 bottles, the chef said, and banquets often started at midnight and lasted into the morning.

— The first time North Korea tested a nuclear device, the United Nations tried to hit the reclusive nation's leader where it really hurts -- in the stomach.

The global body slapped North Korea with a ban on luxury goods. The sanction targeted Pyongyang's top man, the then-paunchy Kim Jong Il, also known as the Dear Leader. He is a notorious foodie with a taste for live lobster, rare cognac, shark-fin soup and sushi sliced by his own Japanese chef.

Nearly three years later, North Korea has tested another nuclear device, and the U.N. is out to punish Kim again. A partial draft resolution calls on U.N. members to immediately enforce the ban on luxury goods. The U.N. Security Council wants to put the Dear Leader on another diet.

But analysts doubt the initial ban on luxury goods really forced Kim to eat less caviar and more of the traditional Korean pickled cabbage condiment, kimchi. They are also skeptical that renewed efforts to enforce the luxury goods ban will help get North Korea to give up the nukes it thinks are essential for its survival.

"No matter what comes out of the U.N. Security Council, there is not much we can do to twist the arm of North Korea," said analyst Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a think tank outside Seoul.

Another possible problem with the luxury ban is that Kim's dining and drinking habits have probably drastically changed in the past three years. He reportedly suffered a stroke in August and has appeared gaunt in recent photos. The protruding tummy that used to stress the fabric of his trademark jumpsuit seems much smaller.

Many North Korean watchers also think Kim has had to cut back on his beloved booze.

"You're not going to hurt him by cutting off some of his red wine," said Michael Breen, author of the book "Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader."

Breen suspects that if Kim has curbed his drinking, those in his inner circle are also filling their tumblers with barley tea instead of brandy.

But Breen said the flow of goodies into North Korea isn't just for Kim.

They are also used to buy the loyalty of his generals and party leaders, so a luxury ban would not be entirely futile -- it could hobble the government by eroding Kim's support.

Breen said a representative of the famous Hennessy company confirmed for him a few years ago that North Korea was the company's biggest single customer, spending about $700,000 a year on Paradis cognac.

The company considered shipments of the drink to be a good barometer of political stability in North Korea. When sales went up, he said, that meant Kim was nervous and was passing out more bottles to keep his inner circle happy.

The trick now for the U.N. Security Council is to figure out what is considered to be a luxury item in the secretive state, Breen said. In an impoverished, isolated place like North Korea where millions are malnourished, a coveted item even among the ruling elite might be as simple as a steady supply of eggs, he said.

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