What Kind of Man Drinks Hennessy? Excellent Question

North Korea Analysts Ponder Kim Jong Il's Huge Tab For 50-Year-Old Cognac

SEOUL, South Korea -- Geopolitical analysts trying to divine the aspirations of Kim Jong Il are at odds over the significance of a clue: The North Korean heir apparent is the world's biggest single buyer of Hennessy's top-of-the-line cognac.

"This is something to watch closely and to take into account for the future," says Ahn Chung Si, professor of political science at Seoul National University. Cognac, says Mr. Ahn, "is clearly a necessary item for him to ensure his power."

Mr. Kim has been the biggest buyer of the cognac, called Paradis, for the past two years, Hennessy confirms. Although the distiller is tight-lipped about the exact value of its exports to Pyongyang, diplomatic and shipping sources estimate Mr. Kim's annual account at $650,000 to $800,000 since 1992. That is between 626 and 770 times the average North Korean's yearly income of $1,038, according to the latest estimates released by the South Korean government.

Apparently no longer content with Hennessy's Very Special Old Pale, which retails for about $40 a bottle in Seoul, Mr. Kim sticks to Paradis, a 50-year-old brandy that sells for about $630 a bottle in Seoul. Shipping sources estimate that Hennessy exports a thousand bottles of Paradis, one of the world's oldest commercially available cognacs, to North Korea each year.

"Given that no one else in North Korea has access to such a precious commodity but Kim Jong Il," says Mr. Ahn, "it's likely he's distributing it. We give liquor to friends to buy influence; he is trying to influence a whole country."

Although the 52-year-old Mr. Kim has apparently established his authority, he has yet to be formally ordained by the Communist Party. That has prompted suspicion that he is being challenged either by military men or by senior members of the Party.

If the leap in Paradis sales is any indication, some observers point out, the cost of coalition-building in North Korea has risen dramatically. Notes a liquor-industry official based in Seoul: "Often with shaky regimes, sales of Hennessy tend to go up."

Paradis, which is a blend of Hennessy's best cognacs, made its debut in North Korea as the official spirit at Kim Il Sung's 80th birthday celebration in 1992. "We'd been doing business with the North Koreans for a long time," says an official of Moet Hennessy SA, the wines and spirits unit of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA in Paris. "But before the birthday, the quantity was always quite modest."

An intelligence analyst who studies Kim Jong Il's tastes says: "I think he's fallen in love with the stuff."

That isn't surprising to officials in Seoul; what surprises them is the size of his tab. Mr. Kim's cognac is ordered through North Korea's trade office and de facto consulate in Paris, then flown to Pyongyang via Prague or Berlin, shippers say. Also known to be circulating in North Korea are about a dozen bottles of Hennessy No. 1, which can be had only through private bidding and is served at the world's most exclusive restaurants.

Despite increasingly dour assessments of North Korea's economy, which analysts say can no longer generate adequate amounts of basic foodstuffs, energy, and raw materials, its elite has never been short of luxury goods. Under Kim Il Sung, making gifts of expensive items was a common way to seal loyalty and shore up alliances. The elder Mr. Kim was famous for handing out gold Rolex watches to trusted functionaries and cadres. Many had his name engraved on the casings.

If it worked for the elder Kim, say some analysts, why not for his son? Trading up to Paradis from V.S.O.P., they argue, has enhanced his relative gifting power and will ultimately tilt the balance of any leadership struggle in his favor.

"Just because he's upgraded the method of bribing does not mean he is losing support," says Kil Jeong Woo, a senior fellow at the Research Institute for National Unification, a think tank run by the South Korean government. "Presumably, the people being bribed will think twice before moving against him and jeopardizing such perks."

Perhaps, some analysts speculate, Mr. Kim feels secure in his position and is simply revving up his reputedly indulgent lifestyle. They recall how South Korean autocrat Park Chung Hee, at the peak of his popularity in the 1960s, developed a public fondness for Chivas Regal that established the Scotch whisky as the nation's alcoholic beverage of choice.

"Let's say Kim Jong Il and his friends really do have these all-night parties," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and co-author of a book on North Korean demographics. "How many bottles would it take to keep them going? If you do the arithmetic, it seems quite possible that there's never really much left to give away."