Switzerland recently added to existing sanctions against North Korea by banning shipments of all Swiss watches to the secretive “communist dictatorship.” While outwardly a communist state, the political reality in North Korea seems to suggest a fascist regime where a single party system headed by dictator Kim Jong-un controls the often oppressed and closed country which sees little outside influence for the population that exists under totalitarian rule. Life might be difficult for the average North Korean citizen, but top leaders enjoy lavish luxuries, and a report online suggests that the country spends upward of $600 million per year on luxury goods. Those, of course, include high-end watches, and are exclusively for the country’s top leaders including Kim Jong-un himself.
The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry recently reported that in May and June of 2016 zero Swiss watch were exported to North Korea. This is part of Switzerland’s compliance with increased UN Security Council-led sanctions against North Korea that has continued its buildup of ballistic weapons in opposition to international pressure. While Switzerland remains an important part of the UN Security Council, there is no doubt some disappointment on the home front since the Swiss watch industry is currently experiencing major export decreases overall due to the world economy as well as deep-rooted systemic issues in their too-often archaic business models.
Swiss watches are just some of the items which are banned from being imported to North Korea as the world continues to play its nuanced dance with the West’s poster child for a modern oppressive state, combining an erratic and often hostile leader as well as a track record of human rights abuses and illegal conduct around the globe. North Korea is among the poorest countries in the world to live in, so where do its top government leaders get all this money to buy watches and other luxury goods?
Varied reports suggest that in order to fuel the lifestyle demands of the elite in Pyongyang the country engages in a range of internationally unlawful trade and production such as moving poached African ivory to China to producing illicit drugs and even counterfeit cigarettes. Though, a chain smoker himself, Kim Jong-un is probably puffing away at the real thing.
I see North Korea as a living embodiment of the premise in George Orwell’s prescient book Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) about a “big brother” totalitarian state where surveillance and propaganda abound – all held together by the illusion of constant war. In fact, in a sort of sick way, North Korea’s fascist regime is allowed to remain in power by the rest of the world despite its true, obviously fragile nature. In North Korea, the almost obsessive focus on preparing for war and armament is part of what gels the collective effort together, where the government continues to claim that Western forces and the US are threatening their way of life.
This constant battle with the “enemy” allows the government to remain in power vis-à-vis the legitimacy it gains through “protecting” the North Korean way of life, and all the sacrifices the people are asked to make are in the name of this “national effort.” It can be argued that forces in the West tolerate this behavior because it in turn allows them to justify degrees of military spending and a presence in the region. It has been further said that countries ranging from the US to South Korea use the potential threat of North Korea to build up military forces, which in actuality are there to protect against potentially greater threats (such as, say, China). Again, it’s a prevailing theory, and one that I subscribe to as likely accurate.
North Korea’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un was mostly raised and schooled in Switzerland. One of the often cited reasons that Switzerland remains safe from many of the world’s greater military powers is that many of their children are currently in school there. One good reason for that is that Switzerland focuses hard on guaranteeing their safety, as well as a high-quality international education.
Perhaps a sentimentalist at heart, Kim Jong-un is often seen wearing a watch that would mostly be considered a lady’s piece. This is probably a Movado, and one that is believed he was given as a gift while he was younger (and smaller). Kim Jong-un also seems to like Omega, such as his often worn De Ville timepiece. Another report indicates that just two years after taking power from his father, Kim Jong-il, spending on Swiss luxury goods under Kim Jong-un increased four-fold from about 60,000 Swiss francs per year in 2010 to over 215,000 Swiss francs in 2012. Again, these are official numbers and don’t take into consideration all the back-channel trading and imports that North Korea smuggles into its own country.
At least for now, the export of all Swiss watches into North Korea from Switzerland is banned as part of the above-mentioned sanctions package from the UN. Of course, North Korea has plenty of other ways to nourish its love of luxury goods, such as getting as many high-end Swiss watches as it can consume from China and elsewhere.