'Dear Leader' sips cognac as nation starves

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The Independent Online
Hard information about North Korea is hard to come by, but in the last few weeks one thing has become increasingly certain: after two years of floods and economic stagnation, the country is on the verge of famine. An American congressman who visited this month saw peasants living off hot water and last year's cabbage leaves.

But one commodity at least is not in short supply: for all its economic distress, North Korea is still consuming a disproportionate amount of the world's finest cognac.

By global standards the quantities are not large, but they are remarkable for a country which last week became the subject of a $126m (pounds 77m) emergency food appeal by the United Nations.

In the first two months of this year alone, according to official French figures, cognac producers exported 200 litres to Pyongyang. In 1996, the total was 300 litres.

A spokesman for Hennessy confirmed that the company exports a range of brandies to North Korea, from the standard VSOP, which sells for about Fr280 (pounds 30), to Richard Hennessy which costs Fr8000 (pounds 850) a bottle. Since the first devastating round of floods in 1995, North Korea has spent Fr1,421,000 (pounds 151,170) on high-quality French brandy.

In fact, cognac consumption appears to have increased as the economy has plunged - in 1995 French brandy exports were an eighth of last year's. And here perhaps lies a clue to the cognac conundrum.

There is little doubt that the shipments are reserved for the most senior leaders of the Worker's Party, including the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. Cognac is valued in Asia above all as a symbol of prestige. Bottles are given as presents to acquire influence and favour: and if the Dear Leader is giving away more bottles these days, it may be because he needs all the favours he can muster.

Among the biggest of many uncertainties in North Korea is the loyalty of the military. Since the death three years ago of his father, Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader has made efforts to ingratiate himself with his armed forces.

Defectors have described the award of villas and luxury cars to key officers. Assuming that he does not drink it all himself, the Dear Leader's cognac is most likely to end up in the glasses of the military.

Far from representing blind extravagance, it may actually be an indicator of his increasing desperation.