As many continue to claim international sanctions are crippling North Korea's economy and leaving the Kim regime starved of cash and luxury goods, we continue to get glaring indications otherwise. Case in point, Kim Jong Un being filmed rolling around Pyongyang in yet another new super high-end limousine. Last time it was a Rolls Royce Phantom, this time it's a late body armored Mercedes-Maybach S600. The revelation comes just weeks before another summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will be held, one in which the North Koreans are demanding sanctions relief before proceeding with nuclear disarmament to any tangible degree.
The new armored limousine based on the Mercedes-Maybach S600 first appeared in a broadcast, seen below, on state-run Korean Central Television (KCTV) on Feb. 1, 2019. One clip showed Kim standing next to the car on Jan. 31, 2019, during a visit to see performances by the DPRK Friendship Art Delegation, which had recently returned from China. Another showed the vehicle driving to the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee building in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
The segments in question begin at 40:00 in the runtime in the video below.
Kim's affinity for Mercedes limos is well documented. He notably used armored S600 Pullman Guard limousines to travel to his historic summit with South Korean President Moon Jae In in April 2018 and then to his equally historic meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore two months later.
This attraction to western automobiles, and Mercedes in particular, is something the younger Kim shared with his father Kim Jong Il, as well as his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. In 2001, the elder Kim reportedly purchased some 200 luxury cars and smuggled them into the country in the face international sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang, which are in place in response to its nuclear weapons program, ballistic missile developments, and horrendous human rights record, among other things. Mercedes limousines were also a staple of Kim Il Sung's transportation.
The connection between the Kim family rulers and their various modes of transportation is so strong that the vehicles they used are displayed prominently in their mausoleums. Below is a screencap from a video (also posted below) of Kim Jong Un's tour of Kim Jong Il's mausoleum, which even has his yacht and train car on display:
Flaunting these vehicles is an obvious act of defiance for the North Korean regime, which is an international pariah, but has developed an elaborate network of foreign contacts, shell companies, and illicit enterprises around the world to skirt sanctions and continue to function despite foreign pressure. The regime deliberately allowed state news crews to film Kim and his new car ahead of his upcoming second summit with Trump, where the issue of relaxing sanctions is set to be a hot topic.
As for the new cars themselves, it's not clear how many Mercedes are in the North Korean government fleet at present. At least a pair of S600s reported arrived in the country in 2009 and went into service in 2010. Two years later, another handful in a different configuration appeared at a military parade in Pyongyang. Yet another lot emerged between 2013 and 2014, again in configurations different from the other vehicles.
In 2015, a panel of experts investigating sanctions violations for the United Nations Security Council reported that the second set of S600s were not actually Pullman guards, but had been armored by an unspecified North American company before making their way to North Korea. The third pair was also not factory standard, with "body characteristics suggest that these vehicles are not Pullman versions of the S-class vehicles but were modified by a third-party."
The following year, the panel of experts issued new findings, saying the customization of at least two of the cars had occurred in the United States before the vehicles arrived in China and were then transported into North Korea. A firm known as Seajet International, run by Chinese businessman Yunong Ma, also known as George Ma, allegedly arranged the deal. Ma, who was also a representative for North Korea's flag carrier Air Koryo, and Seajet, have been linked to illicit North Korean arms sales and other foreign deals, according to the U.N. report.
Then, in October 2018, it looked as if Kim's association with the iconic Mercedes limos might be coming to an end when he appeared at meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Rolls Royce Phantom. You can read our writeup on this surprise unveiling here.
Kim's Rolls is visible in the brief video below.
North Korea's fleet of active Mercedes VIP vehicles dates back to 1990s model years, with older vehicles that are no longer needed to transport Kim and the regime's top officials being used for other diplomatic transport duties. So, it's not like the regime just uses these vehicles during their prime and tosses them away.
It was not clear at the time of the Phantom's arrival if Kim was intending to replace his top Mercedes limousines with Phantoms, but at this point, it seems as if the Rolls Royce may be a one-off, or it isn't being chosen for primary transportation missions outside of benign circumstances for operational concerns raised by Kim's Guard Command that is tasked with protecting him. These can include the vehicle's level of armor, parts availability, reliability, maneuverability, and weight and space concerns for traveling via train or airlifter to meetings abroad. The vehicles may have simply proven too easy to track and too hard to smuggle for the North Koreans.
To this point, in 2017, Bangladeshi authorities seized another Phantom – falsely declared to be a BMW – belonging to the former First Secretary of the North Korean Embassy in that country. Officials in Bangladesh had expelled the diplomat the year before for smuggling cigarettes
Regardless, it seems that Kim has returned to form with the acquisition of the new Mercedes-Maybach.
As with the previous S600s, it is also unclear whether or not this car is actually a factory standard armored Guard model or came via a third party concern. The unarmored Mercedes-Maybach S600 sedan has been on the market since 2015 and the armored VIP Guard version appeared the following year. The list price for the S600 Guard model is more than $500,000.
Video caption: Executive limousines became a point of connection between Trump and Kim at the Singapore summit last June when Trump showed Kim the inside of the "The Beast," the most famous limousine in the world. Kim has an established love for transportation and vehicles and the fact that the U.S., Russian, and Chinese presidents have all received new limousines over the last year seems to have sent his regime looking to do the same:
"The correct export of products in conformance with the law is a fundamental principle of responsible entrepreneurial activity," Ute Wüest von Vellberg, a spokesperson for Daimler, which owns the Mercedes and Mercedes-Maybach brands, told NK Pro in response to a query about how the car had made its way to North Korea. "Our company has had no business connections with North Korea for far more than 15 years now and strictly complies with EU and U.S. embargoes."
NK Pro also noticed slight differences in the armored surrounds inside the door jam from Kim's car to a stock S600 Maybach Pullman Guard.
So yeah, the Kim regime isn't exactly crumbling due to a lack of cash from international sanctions. And there is a very good chance that this new car shows up in Hanoi where Kim will meet Trump on February 27th, 2019 for their second round of attempted detente. North Korea has long claimed that sanctions don't work, while also claiming they cause hardship on the North Korean people. As such, they argue they should be lifted. Considering Kim's new super-expensive whips, this seems at least partly true.
The facts show that the regime has its ways to get the products it wants, and with China and Russia cozying up to Pyongyang, it seems more likely we will only see less enforcement of the international sanctions regime that is supposed to bring North Korea to the bargaining table and punish them for their dangerous behavior, not more.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com