About the Author
View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korea imported a dozen purebred horses worth tens of thousands of dollars from Russia in October 2019, trade data recently made public by the Russian government showed.
The horses, worth a combined $75,509.76, were shipped to the DPRK the same month that leader Kim Jong Un made the first of two high-profile visits to Mount Paektu on horseback.
That visit to politically-symbolic mountaintop last October was one of Pyongyang’s defining propaganda images of the year.
Kim was later reported to have taken another ride to the peak in December — that time surrounded by a group of senior ruling party officials, also on horseback.
Experts at the time said the images of Kim and his horse bounding through the snow together were meant to show off the leader’s strength — a powerful man firmly gripping the reins of his country.
“Reflected in the dignified mien of Kim Jong Un atop majestic Mt. Paektu was the majesty of the illustrious commander looking far into the road of advance of a powerful socialist country that will achieve prosperity with its own efforts, meeting all headwinds with the storm of Mt. Paektu,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) wrote in its report on Kim’s October ride.
The images were also intended to link Kim Jong Un to his grandfather, the founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, who devoted an entire chapter of his memoir to his own beloved white horse.
“The image of my faithful white horse still moves as vividly before my eyes as he did sixty years ago,” the late DPRK President’s memoir reads. “If he had been a human being he would have won higher commendation than the most loyal of men.”
Previous reporting has suggested that substantial preparations went into the two visits, imagery of which has, according to the country’s state media, inspired many North Koreans to scale the Mount Paektu for themselves.
Analysis of satellite imagery by NK News‘s sister site NK Pro last month revealed two of Kim Jong Un’s private airport runways had been torn down and replaced with horse tracks in the run up to the visit — suggesting they may have been built with the purpose of providing practice grounds for officials.
Despite the circumstantial evidence, however, experts were uncertain whether the 12 horses imported last October were, in fact, the same animals used by the North Korean leader last year.
They are also not the first exports of purebred horses to the DPRK by Russia in recent years, with that country’s trade data also listing two horses having been sent to the North during August 2016, for less than $5600 in total.
Artyom Lukin, an international relations scholar at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, told NK News that North Korea’s elites have long been fans of Russian purebred horses.
“In 2003, Putin gifted Orlov horses to Kim Jong Il as a birthday present,” Lukin said. “The North Koreans came to like Orlov trotters. I think one reason they took to them is the Orlovs’ magnificent, royal look as well as their good temper.”
“I am not sure the horses that Russia exported to North Korea in October 2019 were the same ones that Kim Jong Un and his entourage rode to Mount Paektu that same month and again in December,” he added.
“The ones he rode were probably the Orlov horses that Russia had supplied earlier.”
Liudmila Zakharova, a senior researcher at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies, was also reluctant to speculate.
“Of course, we can speculate about where the horses were used that same month,” she told NK News, “but I do not have any confirmation.”
“Anyhow, export of horses to North Korea is not banned by the UN Security Council. It represents a non-restricted trade cooperation of Russia with North Korea.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham