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‘N.K. importing luxury goods as civilians starve’

North Korea’s imports of luxury goods from China almost doubled in a year, a report from China showed Wednesday, indicating the ongoing shopping spree by the elite class of the reclusive regime even as its people are supposedly dying of hunger.

According to Beijing customs, quoted by Seoul officials, the total volume of trade between Pyongyang and its last-remaining ally and economic benefactor surged by almost two times in the first five months this year, compared with the same period of the previous year.

While imports of corn, rice and other foodstuffs stood at a mere four percent of imports, or $46 million, North Korea spent $10 million bringing in foreign cigarettes and liquor via China, the report showed.

The North spent about $7.5 million to buy cigarettes including Marlboro and Mild Seven, up 117 percent from last year and imported $2.4 million worth of Hennessy Cognac, whiskey and Japanese beer, up 94 percent, it said.

Some $550,000 worth of class A beef was also brought in apparently for luxury gatherings and power elite households, the Unification Ministry here said.

Some of Pyongyang’s power elites have McDonald’s hamburgers delivered to their homes from China through North Korea’s Air Koryo, and North Korean trade firms are increasing imports of luxury brand items from Gucci, Armani and Rolex in a bid to appease these people, the ministry said.

Despite years of food shortages, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has long showered his aides with luxury items to win their loyalty.

Amid the shopping spree, Pyongyang has been increasing calls to the international community to send food for its starving people, claiming last year’s summer flooding continues to affect its food shortages.

North Korea, which has relied on outside assistance to feed its population of 24 million since the mid-1990s, was slapped with international sanctions after conducting two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The U.N.-imposed sanctions not only deepened the communist state’s isolation, but also banned it from trading in weapons as well as luxury goods.

The latest report shows that Pyongyang is continuing to dodge the sanctions to bring in luxury items for its ruling elites.

Despite the country’s diehard nuclear ambitions and provocations, the U.N. food agency asked countries to donate 434,000 tons of food to North Korea in March, claiming food must be sent at least to women and children.

The international community has been following the calls with the European Union deciding earlier this month to send emergency food aid worth 10 million euros to the impoverished state.

While refusing to resume aid on the government level, South Korea has been selectively accepting calls by local charity groups to send aid recently.

Eight South Korean Buddhist officials arrived in the North’s western border city of Kaesong earlier Wednesday to deliver milk powder and other aid to nurseries, according to Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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