By Cole Pennington
For this edition of the W.O.E. Dispatch, Cole takes us to Pyongyang, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Kim Il-Sung wore a gold Omega Constellation (Photo Credit: Britannica)
Product of the North Korean Politburo: The Kim Il-Sung Omega
Even if it were a possibility, I would not visit North Korea again today. I knew back in 2014 that it was most likely my first and last visit. I left having learned a powerful lesson: In every country, people are people, and governments are governments. One does not necessarily represent the other. For two weeks I traveled around the hermit nation in search of a North Korean-produced Moranbong watch, and during my travels I came across many wonderful folks just like you and me – but the shadow the Kim regime casts on the North Korean layperson can skew our perception of the entire country. Much like the rest of the world, there are good people and bad people – and a particularly bad government – in North Korea.
And there’s a series of watches that perfectly encapsulates the complexities of the Hermit Kingdom – it’s the range of Omegas that the country’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, had produced in the late ‘70s bearing his signature on the dial. There are a number of examples, a Constellation ref. 166.0248, and a Seamaster that both feature Kim Il-Sung’s name in red Hangul characters at 12 or 6 o’clock positions.
An Omega extract appearing on an enthusiast forum puts the production date of one known example at 1978:
Extract from the Omega Archives (Photo Credit: Omega Forums/eBay)
The watches served as gifts both internally and externally. High ranking North Korean officials were recognized and presented with the watches, as well as visiting foreign state officials. Like we’ve discussed here at W.O.E. before, watches, in the political context, are used as tools to build alliances and gain trust just as much as they are used as tools to tell time.
Former Director of CIA and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea several times (Photo Credit: State Department)
I’ve never actually seen one of these watches in person. The closest I came was in the hotel bar at the infamous Koryo Hotel when I was actually searching for another watch, a Moranbong. I wasn’t expecting to hear about the Omega, but an encounter led to a primary source confirming that these watches were indeed awarded for service to the regime. Coupled with an Omega extract dating the watch to 1978, it’s enough to piece together the significance of the watch. In a HODINKEE Magazine piece earlier this year I chronicled the search for the Moranbong that ended up demystifying the origins of the Kim Il-Sung Omega. From the piece:
Cole wearing an Omega Seamaster ref. 2531.80.00 in Pyongyang, North Korea (Photo Credit: Cole Pennington, 2014)
One of the last stops on the tour of North Korea was Koryo Hotel Lobby Bar. The Koryo Hotel is a popular spot for foregin tourists to stay while in Pyongyang, and since the number of places that foreigners are cleared to travel to is so limited, the Koryo Hotel acts as a funnel for all Westerners. And with the Westerners, of course, come their minders.
King’s friend sat down at our table. I never got his name, but he had just chaperoned a group of European tourists to the bar and was grabbing a quick drink and catching up with his minder buddy. After a brief introduction, King asked his buddy if he could find a Moranbong watch. He paused, built up the tension, and then said “no.” It’s been almost a decade, but I remember the conversation going something like this:
“But –” he said with a smile, “I do have something you might be interested in. It’s a watch, but it’s not a Moranbong. It was given to my father as a gift, and he passed it on to me.”
“So what is it?” I asked.
“An Omega. And it was given to my father by the Supreme Leader. It’s one of my most prized possessions. It has the Supreme Leader’s signature on the dial.”
Cole in Moranbong Park, Pyongyang. (Photo Credit: Cole Pennington, 2014)
Like their banking system, Swiss diplomacy – and watchmaking – work in mysterious ways.
“Want to buy it?” He laughed as he was asking me. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.
I wouldn’t buy it anyway, but hearing about the Omega was enough. I had read about Omega Constellations made for Kim Il-sung, and this anecdote was enough to confirm their backstory I learned about online. I didn’t find the Moranbong, but I did find a little nugget of knowledge that satisfied my horological curiosity.
Propaganda is all around the Hermit Kingdom. It takes the place of advertising in the Western World, except here it’s often selling the North Korean idea of Juche, or extreme self-reliance. (Photo Credit: Cole Pennington, 2014)
What I find most fascinating about the watch actually has nothing to do with the watch itself–it has to do with the strange space it occupies inside the tension of Western conspicuous consumption and the Marxist–Leninist foundations of Juche, the state ideology of North Korea. On the streets of Pyongyang you’ll find Audis and Hummers driving on roads filled with state-produced billboards decrying capitalism. The existence of an Omega produced for high-ranking officials underscores the massive divide between those directly tied to the regime and profiting greatly from the regime’s illicit activities and the laypeople, who most of the time don’t wear a watch, but when they do, it’s a Seiko or Chinese-produced quartz piece.
The nation’s current ruler, Kim Jong-Un, has demonstrated a taste for luxury timepieces, a tradition that goes back to his grandfather’s state-sponsored Omegas.
Swiss educated Kim Jong-un wears a IWC Portofino Automatic, a topic for a future W.O.E. Dispatch (Photo Credit Reuters)
A Note From W.O.E.:
North Korean Intelligence Services represent a significant counterintelligence and even physical threat to its adversaries. While it is tempting to write off the capabilities of the “hermit kingdom,” DPRK has demonstrated it has a long arm, most notably with the assassination of the dear leaders half-brother, Kim Jong-nam using nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2013.
While scores of Americans and Europeans have traveled to and successfully returned from visits to North Korea, a cultural excursion to Pyongyang is not without risk. In January 2016, Otto Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia was arrested for “subversion” after reportedly attempting to remove a propaganda poster at his hotel. After a series of negotiations, Warmbier was released to the United States in a comatose state June 2017 and ultimately succumbed to what is reported to have been botulism developed during his captivity.