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(LEAD) N. Korea imports luxury goods for ruling elites despite food shortages

All Headlines 11:32 July 20, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by South Korean official in paras 7, 11, 12; CORRECTS dateline)

SEOUL, July 20 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has continued its shopping spree for Armani, Gucci and other luxury goods for its ruling elites, a South Korean official said Wednesday, the latest sign that international sanctions on the North have not been fully implemented.

The U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 ban the communist country from trading in weapons of mass destruction, some conventional weapons and luxury goods.

Still, the North has skirted sanctions by buying luxury items that also included Rolex and Omega watches as well as Hennessy Cognac for its ruling elites, the official said.

The latest revelation comes as the North is grappling with chronic food shortages that may get worse after recent heavy rains submerged or washed away tens of thousands of hectares of farmland.

Earlier this year, the U.N. food agency appealed for 430,000 tons of food aid to feed 6 million vulnerable North Korean people, a quarter of the country's population.

The North has relied on international handouts since the late 1990s when it suffered a massive famine that was estimated to have killed 2 million people.

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, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

Despite years of food shortages, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has engaged in the gift politics of showering his top aides and other elites with luxury goods to win their loyalty.

Some ruling elites also enjoyed McDonald's hamburgers delivered from China via Air Koryo, North Korea's flagship airline, the official said, without elaborating.

The North also spent about US$7.5 million in buying cigarettes such as Marlboro and Mild Seven in the first five months, a rise of 117 percent compared to the same period last year, according to figures by South Korea and China. It also showed that the North imported $2.4 million worth of Hennessy Cognac, whiskey and Japanese beer, up 94 percent compared to the same period last year.

The trade volume between North Korea and China stood at US$1.96 billion in the first five months, twice as much as in the same period last year, according to Lee.

China is the North's last remaining ally, key economic benefactor and diplomatic supporter.

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