Throughout North Korea’s Great Famine, as millions of North Koreans either starved to death or watched their loved ones die, suppliers across Europe willingly sold Kim Jong-Il millions of dollars’ worth of luxury cars, yachts, cognac, and Swiss watches. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council recognized the obscenity of this practice by adopting Resolution 1718, which first banned the export of luxury goods to North Korea.
Among European nations, probably none has done more than Switzerland to enable the democidal kleptocracy of North Korea’s rulers. It served both as Kim Jong-il’s banker, and as a willing supplier of luxuries. According to Vanity Fair, Bureau 39 managed “multi-billion-dollar personal bank accounts in Switzerland and other private banking havens around the world” for Kim. Kim’s former Ambassador to Switzerland, Ri Su-Yong, is also said to have played a key role in the regime’s Swiss finances before his promotion to Foreign Minister. North Korean refugees have called on Switzerland to freeze those accounts.
In 2013, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry claimed that its exports to North Korea had fallen to just $76,000 per year. But as NK News’s Leo Byrne reports, Kim Jong-Un is on another Swiss watch-buying spree, even as 70 percent of North Koreans are “food insecure,” and as the World Food Program asks foreign donors for $111 million to feed North Korean infants, children, and pregnant women.
North Korean imports of Swiss watches rebounded to their highest levels in years in the first six months of 2015, according to official figures from the ITC Trade Map.
Swiss exports of the luxury items dropped to zero for the whole of 2014, however have since rebounded to nearly $80,000 since the start of the year. [NK News, Leo Byrne]
That is to say, North Korea spent as much on Swiss watches in the first half of 2015 as it spent in all of 2013. Byrne notes that the jump in exports “coincides with the opening of Pyongyang’s new airport terminal, where watches from Switzerland appear to be on sale.” KCNA recently published these photos of Kim Jong-Un — upgraded by me, and you’re welcome — touring one of the duty-free shops where watches were on sale.
Those photos, as lovely a juxtaposition as they are, did not show the watches in sufficient detail to reveal their cost or their origins. That question is now resolved.
“Air Koryo watches (for man) – Swiss made – price: (US$220) – they said it is a joint venture product with Swiss company – Sells in new Terminal 2 Pyongyang international airport,” Flickr user Jaka Parker writes under a recently taken picture of one of the watches.
Byrne’s report did not specify that North Korea imported the watches directly from Switzerland, but his report relies on International Trade Centre (ITC) data published by each exporting country, which implies a direct transfer.
Although the Security Council resolution makes no distinction between luxury goods imported for domestic consumption and those imported for resale, the Pyongyang duty-free shop may well be a front for allowing the regime to claim that it is only importing the watches for resale, while gifting its elite with most of the inventory.
The U.N.’s ridiculously short list of luxury items does not list watches, but does list “jewelry of precious metal or of metal clad with precious metal.” Switzerland is not an EU member, but it is surrounded by EU states, and the EU list is instructive. It lists “[l]uxury clocks and watches and their parts.” Thus, with the sole exception of its refusal to sell Kim Jong-Un a ski lift, Switzerland continues to be an outlier among European nations for its failure to abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and for its irresponsible and unethical trade with North Korea.