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Controversial handbag

Let them carry Dior

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CLASS APART: Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju with the famous handbag

The stylish first lady of North Korea has sparked off a controversy by toting a handbag that costs about 16 times the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker.

The South Korean news media, which scrutinises every photo of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, zeroed in this week on one particular photo released by the North's state-run news agency on Tuesday. It shows Kim watching an art performance by soldiers during a military visit.

But the photo also showed his wife, Ri Sol-ju, with something most North Korean women have never heard of, much less owned: a Christian Dior handbag.

South Korean journalists did not take long to identify Ri's handbag and, assuming it is genuine, its going price in Seoul: 1. 8 million won, or $1, 600. That is about 16 times the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker in the Gaeseong industrial park, a joint venture between North and South Korea that provides some of the bestpaying jobs in the impoverished North.

The South Korean news media also noted the apparent "belly fat" - or is it a baby bump? - that Ri has developed. The South Korean spy agency believes that Ri and Kim already have a child.

Ri has drawn international attention since she began accompanying her husband in public early last month. Her expensive-looking designer suits stand out among the North Korean elites, who typically wear olive-colored military uniforms and drab Mao suits. Some outside analysts even consider her appearance as a sign of potential change in leadership and even lifestyle that Kim could bring about as a youthful leader who studied in Europe as a teenager. (Recent visitors to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, reported seeing miniskirts, high heels, Nike hats and Hello Kitty cellphone accessories. )

But Ri's fashionable style magnifies how disconnected the ruling Kim family remains from the public.

A famine in the 1990s killed numerous North Koreans and drove many others to flee to China and South Korea. The regime still cannot feed its own people and needs outside aid. But the Kim family has lived in style.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian presidential envoy, wrote "The Orient Express, " a book about the train trip that Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, took through Russia in 2001. Pulikovsky, who accompanied the North Korean leader, said Kim's 16-car private train was stocked with crates of French wine. Live lobsters were delivered in advance to stations.

A Japanese cook who goes by the name Kenji Fujimoto and who worked as Kim Jong-il's personal sushi chef from 1988 to 2001 later wrote that Kim had a wine cellar stocked with 10, 000 bottles, and that he ate shark fin soup weekly. His banquets often lasted until morning and could stretch for a few days, according to the chef. (When Mr. Fujimoto visited Pyongyang last month at Kim Jong-un's invitation, he went there with choice cuts of tuna - a delicacy that is a Kim family favourite. )
In 2006, in reaction to North Korea's first nuclear test, Washington tightened its sanctions against the North. It banned 60 luxury items from entering the country, including yachts, Chanel perfumes, Cognac, large-screen television sets and Mercedes-Benz cars - items that the Kim family had doled out as gifts to the loyal military and party elite.

Ms. Ri's stylish appearance seems to contradict the public image that Kim Jong-un wanted to maintain for his family. He himself shows up in a Mao suit. Just a week ago, the North Korean news media released the text of a speech that Mr. Kim delivered to party leaders in July. In that speech, he lovingly remembered how his father insisted on wearing the same threadbare gray parka to remind himself of the famine of the 1990s.

The United Nations reported in June that two-thirds of North Koreans still faced grave food shortages. Last week, it began supplying urgent humanitarian aid after the North reported that nearly 200 people were killed and vast tracts of farmland damaged by flooding.

During his latest visit to a military unit, Mr. Kim was quoted as saying, "It is good to regularly provide every soldier with at least 200 grams of beans every day. " Watching an art performance by female soldiers together with his fashionable wife, he praised the soldiers for not allowing "any evil idea to come into their minds", according to the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

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