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N. Korea's Kim Jong Il turning to designer fakes?

It's a North Korean version of Christmas, with Kim Jong Il playing Santa Claus. In past years, the authoritarian leader has celebrated his birthday by handing out gifts ranging from rice to Rolexes, an annual attempt to buy loyalty and stability.

As Kim celebrates his 69th birthday Wednesday, however, the gift baskets may be lighter and knockoff Gucci could replace the real thing.

People are celebrating the 69th Birthday of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
People are celebrating the 69th Birthday of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap News)

With North Korea begging other countries for food handouts and newly tightened international sanctions squeezing Kim's ability to secure foreign merchandise, North Koreans might see a curtailed celebration this year.

Any such belt-tightening would be a gamble, though.

Kim needs to maintain loyalty while maneuvering his inexperienced youngest son, Kim Jong Un, into position to eventually succeed him. 

The annual gifts, especially those given to the elite, have been a way for Kim to do just that, no matter how tough times get.

But this year many North Koreans are hungry, and a brutal winter is threatening the early spring harvest. The country is coping with natural disasters: foot-and-mouth disease has devastated its livestock and heavy flooding swamped precious farmland last year. There is also the ever-present tension with neighboring South Korea; conservative lawmakers in the South planned to mark Kim's birthday Wednesday by floating balloons filled with anti-Kim propaganda across the border.

With all the misery, a little traditional birthday cheer is always welcome in the North.

North Korea, however, has vowed to turn itself into a powerful country by next year, the centennial of the birth of Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, the country's revered founder and eternal president. It may be necessary to skimp this year to save up for next year's celebrations, when making sure there are enough gifts and food to go around could be even more crucial.

In the past, Pyongyang has proudly announced that every child in the country got presents on the Kims' birthdays, the nation's most important holidays.

For Kim's birthday in 1998, North Korean troops received Seiko watches, a former elite soldier told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. The ex-soldier, who defected to South Korea in 2003, also said houses, Mercedes-Benzes, Audis, Toyotas, Rolexes and other luxury goods were doled out to important officials.

This year, the gifts that get handed out may include rip-offs of luxury goods.

Over the past three months, North Korean officials have bought clothing and textiles, including fake Gucci and Armani suits, in bulk from Beijing's Silk Street market, a person with direct knowledge of the transactions said, speaking anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity. In the past, the source said, the North only bought original luxury brands.

Popular among both Chinese and foreigners, the cramped, multistory Silk Street market is filled with hundreds of clothing shops, many selling Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Armani fakes. Some are so well made that only experts can distinguish them from genuine designer goods.

A North Korean defector working with the Seoul-based civic group Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, Seo Jae-pyoung, said Pyongyang usually buys large amounts of fabric from Chinese markets to distribute to people taking part in events linked to Kim's birthday.

The North appears to be taking extraordinary measures to prepare for what the government hopes will be a triumphant 2012.   

North Korean diplomats have been asking for food aid when meeting officials in foreign countries, a South Korean intelligence official said. North Korea's food shortage is grave, and the North is likely looking to stockpile food to distribute to citizens next year, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.

The North has also reached out to the U.N. World Food Program, saying it needs help because of the severe winter and a bad vegetable harvest. On Monday, the United Nations said it had begun a new assessment of North Korea's food needs and planned more than 300,000 tons of humanitarian assistance.

Along with the North's struggles and the birthday celebration, many are closely watching for word on the country's secretive succession plans. Last year, Kim promoted Jong Un to four-star general and gave him key political posts for an eventual transfer of power.

Chinese Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu threw his support behind the power hand-over when he met with Kim Jong Il on Monday, hailing ``the successful solution of the issue of succession,'' according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

Kim's second son, meanwhile, Swiss-educated Jong Chol, apparently attended a concert by rock guitarist Eric Clapton in Singapore on Monday, an official with South Korea's spy agency said. He gave no further details about the concert, which was first reported by South Korea's KBS television, and asked not to be identified, citing office policy.

As Kim marks another birthday, there is also speculation about the state of his health. U.S. and South Korean officials believe a stroke in August 2008 kept him out of the public eye for months.    

But Kim has been incredibly active this past year. In recent weeks alone, Kim, sometimes accompanied by Jong Un, has given ``field guidance'' at an army medical institute, an art studio and complexes devoted to machines and fertilizer, according to state media.

It remains to be seen, though, how lavish he'll be when he plays Santa Claus this year. (AP)


<관련기사>

北, 김정일 생일 앞두고 짝퉁 명품 대량 구입

수개월 전부터 베이징서..하사품 용도인 듯

북한이 김정일의 69번째 생일을 맞아 각종 행사 참석자들에게 나눠 준 선물 중에 짝퉁 명품이 포함됐을 가능성이 있다는 주장이 제기됐다.

북중 교역에 정통한 익명의 한 소식통은 지난 3개월 동안 북한 관리들이 베이징의 명품 브랜드 모조품 시장에서 구찌와 아르마니 브랜드의 짝퉁 정장 제품을  포함한 의류와 섬유제품들을 대량으로 구입했다고 15일 말했다.

이 소식통은 과거 북한 관리들은 베이징에서 정품의 명품만을 구입해 갔다고 덧붙였다.

'실크 스트리트 마켓(Silk Street market)'으로 불리는 베이징의 이 모조품  시

장은 중국인과 외국인들에게 널리 알려졌으며 이곳에 들어선 수백개의 의류  상점에는 구찌와 아르마니 등의 모조품들이 가득 차 있다. 이들 모조품은 워낙 정교하게 제작되었기 때문에 전문가들만이 가짜임을 알 수 있을 정도이다.

북한 민주화 탈북자 동지회의 서재평은 북한이 오래전부터 김정일의 생일 경축행사에 참여한 사람들에게 선물로 나누어 주기 위해 베이징에서 많은 제품을 구매해 왔다고 밝혔다.

그러나 올해의 상황은 과거와는 크게 대조적이다.

익명을 요구한 전 북한군 출신 탈북자는 1998년 김정일 생일 때는 북한  군인들에게 세이코 시계를 선물로 나누어 주었다고 말했다.

2003년에 북한을 탈출한 이 전직 북한군은 북한이 중요한 간부들에게는  메르세데스-벤츠. 아우디, 도요타 등 외제 차와 롤렉스 시계 및 각종 사치품을 선물로  주기도 했었다고 덧붙였다. (AP=연합뉴스)
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