November 3, 2011 4:21 pm

Dolphin imports highlight Korean divide

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has added Chinese dolphins, French poodles, and African aphrodisiacs to the luxury goods he imports into the impoverished country, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

South Korea’s central bank, relying in part on information provided by the country’s security organs and defectors from the North, published data on Thursday which provide rare insight into economic mismanagement by its reclusive neighbour.

The statistics showed that its economy shrank 0.5 per cent in 2010, which would make the South’s gross national income 39 times larger than the North.

Meanwhile, defectors claim Mr Kim enjoys hunting, and has a number of lodges dotted around the country with menageries filled with boar, deer, and even seals.

North Korea’s economic frailty is a cause of intense strategic concern for the South because it fears the surging cost of ultimate reunification could top $1,000bn. Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, is pressing Pyongyang to pursue Chinese-style reforms to lessen the wealth gap.

Seoul announced this week it planned to seek donations from companies and the public to help build up a fund of more than $50bn to ease the pain of sudden unification with the North, which is under international sanctions targeting its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea’s second consecutive year of GDP contraction – it slipped 0.9 per cent over 2009 – undermines Pyongyang’s rhetoric about advancing to the “gateway of a mighty and prosperous nation” by 2012, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder.

Peter Hughes, Britain’s former ambassador to Pyongyang, noted over the summer when he was still based in North Korea that the authorities were mobilising all university undergraduates for manual labour, because they had fallen behind with preparations for the 2012 festivities. He observed “only postgraduates and foreigners” remained on campuses.

South Korea’s data are only estimates and Pyongyang issues almost no data itself. North Korea also runs lucrative clandestine operations such as arms smuggling, which probably runs into hundreds of millions of dollars, while expensive nuclear imports are nearly impossible to trace.

Food and energy are the most glaring strategic weaknesses. Seoul estimated power output slipped about 0.8 per cent last year after holding level in 2009, partly because of falling production from the country’s flooded coal mines which North Korea lacks technology to repair. North Korea probably consumes about 40 per cent of the power it did in 1990, energy analysts say.

Floods and harsh winters have also dented agricultural output, which fell 2.1 per cent last year after a 1 per cent fall in 2009. But South Korea’s government argues food shortages are no worse than in previous years.

However, David Austin, North Korea programme director at Mercy Corps, an aid agency, says his spot inspections of crops and hospitals show worsening harvests and increasing numbers of starving children that could foreshadow a greater humanitarian calamity.

“These children are the canaries in the mine,” he says.

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