A North Korean colonel who went on European shopping sprees for his country’s rulers has told how the late dictator Kim Il Sung lived in luxury while ordinary people struggled to survive in the impoverished communist nation.
Kim Jong Ryul, who spent 16 years under cover in Austria, said the “great leader” and his son and successor Kim Jong Il spent millions pampering and protecting themselves with Western goods.
The shopping list included luxury cars, carpets, exotic foods, monitors that could detect heartbeats of people hiding behind walls and gold-plated handguns.
The colonel’s account – told in a new book by Austrian journalists Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi – shows the deep divide between the lifestyles of the North Korean leadership and their citizens, who must sometimes subsist eating tree bark, knowing they will be sent to labour camps if they criticise the government.
Kim said this injustice was what motivated him in October 1994 to fake his death at the end of one of his trips and start a new, secret, life in Austria in the hope that the oppressive regime would crumble within years.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994, after grooming his son for years to replace him.
With no change in sight in North Korea’s leadership, the colonel decided to come clean and tell his story.
“Without this book, I didn’t want to die,” he said. “Now I can die with a clear conscience.”
Kim Jong Ryul said the late dictator had dozens of sprawling villas – some of them built underground – filled with crystal chandeliers, silk wallpaper and costly furniture.
In some of the villas, Kim – who had studied mechanical engineering in the former East Germany – even developed special ventilation systems which, in the event of a nuclear attack, would continue to function and act as filters, the colonel said.
It was in these palatial homes that Kim Il Sung and his family would feast on an array of fine foods.
“He only ate foreign food,” the colonel said. “In Vienna there was a special attache, a friend of mine, who only procured special foreign food for the dictator.”
Kim Il Sung’s craving once led to a delegation of cooks being sent to Austria to visit renowned culinary schools and some of the country’s finest restaurants to collect recipes.
The colonel, who speaks German fluently, served as translator.
“’Learn everything!’ – that’s what they were told,” the defector said. “The crazy dictators heard rumours that Austrian cuisine was world famous and that’s why they wanted (the cooks) to come here.”
He also described how Kim Il Sung – while publicly denouncing “Western decadence and imperialism” – had an extensive luxury car collection that included Mercedes, Lincolns, Fords, Cadillacs and Citroens.
Kim Jong Il, who liked taking fast sports cars for a spin, also appeared to share his father’s passion.
In the early 1990s, the car-obsessed ruler even ordered a North Korean version of the Mercedes 200 to be rebuilt. Upon completion it was presented to a cheering North Korean public amid much fanfare, the defector said.
With the help of middle-men eager to make money, the list of items sought by the Kim Il Sung and his son – described by Kim as “little dictator” – were easily tracked down.
For example, a wealthy Romanian secret service agent identified in the book only as Valeriu U. who ran a fake company in Vienna, helped secure, among other things, special hunting weapons and even a light Cessna aircraft.
With North Korea willing to pay 30% more than the asking price for embargoed goods, Austrians and others were also eager to participate. In this way, metal detectors, specialised weapons, devices that could read fingerprints and other, often banned, products found their way into the isolated country.
Kim, who left a wife and two children behind in North Korea and has yet to seek asylum in Austria, said he knew he was risking his life by going public.
“I’m very scared – maybe I’ll be killed, shot, in the next few days,” he said.