A gift from Russia to Kim Jong Un: A new armored limousine

Russia has used North Korea-supplied missiles and munitions on the battlefield in Ukraine. (Photo: Sputnik via Reuters)
Russia has used North Korea-supplied missiles and munitions on the battlefield in Ukraine. (Photo: Sputnik via Reuters)

Summary

Vladimir Putin’s gift of a Russian-made Aurus Senat to the North Korean leader highlights the two leaders’ economic bonds—and their ability to defy U.N. sanctions.

SEOUL—North Korea’s Kim Jong Un just added a new trophy vehicle to his sanctions-defying fleet of luxury cars. And he has Vladimir Putin to thank.

In recent days, the Russian leader gifted Kim an armored head-of-state limousine that Putin himself uses. It is a Russian-made Aurus Senat, which can cost as much as $1 million.

Kim marveled at Putin’s presidential vehicle when the two met last September in Russia’s Far East. He even sat side by side with Putin in the Aurus Senat’s back seat. The Russian automaker’s website boasts that the car is the “embodiment of the dignity and power inherent in the Russian character."

The gift vehicle serves as a “clear demonstration of the special personal relations" between the two leaders, Pyongyang’s state media reported. Kim’s glee over the Russian-made car was a factor in offering one as a present, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a Tuesday briefing. “Putin showed it to him personally, and like many others, he liked it," Peskov said.

Putin’s gift, however, appears to violate United Nations sanctions that limit the import of luxury goods into the Kim regime, U.S. and South Korean officials said. The restrictions date to 2006, shortly after North Korea carried out its first nuclear test. Back then, Putin-led Moscow backed the U.N. penalties.

It is a different dynamic today, as the two countries’ renewed partnerships become increasingly brazen. Kim and Putin have greatly tightened their diplomatic, economic and military bonds in recent months.

Russia has used North Korea-supplied missiles and munitions on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to assessments from Washington, Seoul and Kyiv. Pyongyang and Moscow have denied the existence of any arms deals.

“Not only does Putin’s gift to Kim indicate holes in the sanctions regime, but more troubling is the open willingness and ease in which the autocrats flout sanctions," said Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow who focuses on Korean issues at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “The sanctions regime is broken."

Despite the impediments, the 40-year-old dictator’s roster of luxury vehicles includes Mercedes-Benz limousines, Rolls-Royce Phantoms and bulletproof Lexus sedans. He also has used vehicles from U.S.-based Ford Motor and minivans from South Korea’s Hyundai Motor.

Kim’s car fascination is well-established inside and outside the cloistered regime. North Korean students were taught that Kim learned to drive at age 3. At the 2018 Singapore Summit, Kim took a stroll with then-President Donald Trump to look at the U.S. leader’s state limousine, peeking inside the vehicle.

His personal collection is likely more than 100 vehicles, said Lee Young-jong, director of North Korean studies at Seoul-based think tank Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

Kim, in state-media footage, is often seen with car keys placed nearby, suggesting he may even drive himself to certain events.

“He doesn’t care if the cars are Korean, Japanese or American—he’s a car maniac," Lee said.

The vehicle flaunting also helps Kim send the political message that the country is doing all right despite sanctions, despite food shortages and economic struggles, Lee added.

North Korea’s estimated volume of imported luxury goods is on the rebound after it closed its borders to the outside world during the Covid-19 pandemic. The imports fell to a low of roughly $2 million in 2021, rose to about $28 million in 2022 and had hit roughly $41 million by mid-2023, according to South Korean lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun, whose office analyzes Chinese customs data.

Otherwise, Kim has often needed to use a complicated supply network to smuggle his luxury vehicles back home. In 2018, the delivery of two head-of-state Mercedes-Benz limousines required three cargo jets, about four months and five countries, according to a report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a Washington-based research organization that works to expose illicit finance around the globe.

In early December, Japanese media reported on a police raid of a company near Tokyo that was suspected of trying to export a Lexus car to the North Korean embassy in Bangladesh while falsely declaring Singapore as the destination. A local law-enforcement spokesman said several locations of an automobile-trading company had been searched, but declined to elaborate as the case remained under investigation with no arrests so far.

Kim rewards confidantes with luxury goods, such as watches, tech gadgets or even cars, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said last year. Kim and his family have increasingly showcased their high-end tastes in public, from Swiss watches to fur coats.

Neither Pyongyang nor Moscow detailed how the Aurus Senat vehicle made its way into North Korea. But the two countries now have active railway trade, and ferrying a single vehicle wouldn’t be a logistical challenge through those channels.

The emergence of a Russian vehicle for a North Korean leader evokes memories of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who favored a Soviet-made vehicle. The car was taken by South Korean soldiers in 1950 during the Korean War, after Kim abandoned it as he fled Pyongyang. The ZIS model now sits in downtown Seoul in the War Memorial of Korea.

Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, favored Mercedes-Benz limousines. But both previous leaders for their state funerals were transported in coffins placed atop the roofs of black, American-made Lincoln Continentals.

“They express anti-American sentiments for their whole life but leave in an American car," said Lee, of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “I’ve been a North Korea watcher for 30 years but it’s still a mystery to me."

Miho Inada and Thomas Grove contributed to this article.

Write to Timothy W. Martin at Timothy.Martin@wsj.com and Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

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