Image: Kim Jong Il
Anonymous  /  AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, notorious for his taste for gourmet food, inspects a company under his army's control on April 8.
updated 6/3/2009 4:01:23 PM ET 2009-06-03T20:01:23

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.

Cutting back on booze
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 last 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 believe 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 winery 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.

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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.

Making pizza for Kim
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.

But Kim has enjoyed a much richer diet, according to chefs, defectors and foreign officials who say they got a rare peek into the Dear Leader's mysterious and often bizarre world.

One of them was Ermanno Furlanis, an Italian chef flown to North Korea in the late 1990s to teach cooks how to make pizza for the Dear Leader. The chef — the subject of a British Broadcasting Corp. radio documentary, "I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il" — said his students learned fast. One counted the olives on his pies and measured the distance between them.

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 mostly hidden from him.

Sushi and fine wine
Another witness of Kim's gourmet tastes was Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian presidential envoy who 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.

One of the most detailed accounts of Kim's lifestyle comes from a Japanese sushi chef who used the pen name Kenji Fujimoto in 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 supply of luxury goods for such parties would be hard to block because North Korea has a complex network of trading companies that constantly change their names and are hard to track, said Bertil Lintner, author of the book "Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea Under the Kim Clan." Goods are also easily transported across North Korea's long, porous border with China.

Supply route
North Korea's foreign missions are also masters at using diplomatic privileges to shuttle and smuggle goods around the world, Lintner said.

But the North Koreans appear to be less active in Southeast Asia, which used to be one of their busiest trading centers, he said.

A chain of North Korean restaurants — possibly used for money laundering — has recently shut down in Thailand and Cambodia, he said. Trade has dropped off with Thailand, once a big source of commerce, he said.

"They don't have near as much money as they used to," Lintner said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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