Hitting Kim Jong Il Right in the Cognac
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Fake fur and real fur and jewelry and Jet Skis,
Crystal and Segways and bubbly and Caddies,
Race cars and leather and plasma TVs --
These are a few of Kim's favorite things.
But effective this holiday season, there will be none of those things coming into North Korea, the United States hopes. After Pyongyang tested a nuclear bomb in October, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to deny the rogue nation and its leader, Kim Jong Il, foreign weapons, nuclear technology -- and luxury goods.
U.N. Resolution 1718 condemns North Korea's nuclear test and demands that the country return to six-nation talks aimed at ending the nuclear-weapons program. Until that happens, the United States says, there will be no Fender Stratocasters, Harleys, Ski-Doos or Marlboros.
Although the resolution spelled out the military hardware and technology that U.N. members will deny North Korea, it leaves the luxury category open to each country's interpretation for now. In Japan, a list of two dozen banned exports includes caviar and camcorders, wristwatches and cars.
The State Department's newly released list of no-go goodies blends knowledge and legend of the diminutive strongman's high-end tastes. Denying Kim what he craves, the theory goes, might prompt better behavior from a dictator who reportedly spends nearly a million dollars a year on rare cognac.
The resolution "reaffirms that proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons . . . constitutes a threat to international peace and security" and expresses the "gravest concern" at North Korea's claim to have tested a nuclear weapon Oct. 9.
The U.S. list of more than 60 items reads like a letter to Santa from the dictator who has everything. Yachts, water scooters, race cars, motorcycles, even station wagons and Segways won't be crossing the border this season. There shall be no more DVD players and televisions larger than 29 inches for the man whose film library of 20,000 titles betrays a yen for Bond and Rambo.
Kim's former chef has written that the man known as "Dear Leader" fancies sushi, Iranian caviar and shark-fin soup. He is said to have every grain of rice inspected for perfection. But he won't be served any of it on American china, which is on the list. After dinner, he often enjoys a glass of fine cognac -- so the United States put lead crystal and liquor on the list, too.
The U.N. resolution also freezes North Korean accounts in foreign banks that could be used to fund the weapons program. And it prohibits international travel by officials involved in the nuclear-weapons program and their families. That is ostensibly more bad news for Kim Jong Il's eldest son. Kim Jong Nam, who was then 29, was detained several years ago in Japan while reportedly trying to travel to Tokyo Disneyland on a forged Dominican passport.
The case against selling weapons and nuclear know-how to a bellicose government argues itself. Restricting designer duds, Chanel No. 5 and rare stamps involves subtler reasoning, said Jerrold M. Post, psychiatrist and director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. Post's book "Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World" profiles Kim's eclectic tastes and includes a sales figure from Hennessy that puts Kim's annual cognac budget at up to $800,000 a year.
"It sounds very clever to me," Post said of the U.S. list. "It's designed only to frustrate the senior circle of cronies," he said, sparing most North Koreans, who survive on less than $1,000 a year.
Putting the kibosh on silk scarves, designer fountain pens, furs and leather luggage might inconvenience North Korea's leaders and their families, but Post doubts the luxury ban will inspire an institutional change of heart.
"Part of the support he musters with his followers is having the courage to stand up and forge forward," despite an iPod shortage, Post said. So lack of luxury won't end North Korea's weapons program "unless they use Hennessy to fuel their rockets."
The United Nations is still deciding whether to draw up its own list of banned luxury items, or leave the matter with individual member nations. The U.S. list, the most extensive so far, is also meant as a guide for nations that trade with North Korea more than the United States does. The government says U.S. trade with North Korea hovers in the $6 million range.
The United States reserves the right to take even more privileges away, should Kim's bad behavior continue -- or should his tastes change. "Goods may be added to this list taking into account national discretion on what constitutes a luxury good," reads a caveat at the top.
So while another nation may help Kim indulge his hankering for French vintages, there will be no -- repeat, no -- Samuel Adams beer on Kim's table this season. He has ruined that for himself.