We all know that North Korea, one of the world's last socialist strongholds, has been facing a long-term economic emergency, with famine and poverty claiming 2 million lives a year at its peak.
Photos by Frank Kalero
e all know that North Korea, one of the world’s last socialist strongholds, has been facing a long-term economic emergency, with famine and poverty claiming 2 million lives a year at its peak. Despite surviving on handouts from China and South Korea, the country has a “Military First” policy that shows no sign of letting up. A quarter of its GDP is spent to maintain the highest percentage of military personnel per capita anywhere in the world. In 2006 Amnesty International reported that 37 percent of North Korean children were chronically malnourished. In response to such staggering conditions, head of state Kim Jong-il decided to develop the country’s nuclear program. Later that year the whole nation rejoiced when North Korea tested its first atomic bomb. But sadly enough, you can’t eat nuclear waste.
Kim and his cohorts went back to the drawing board and came up with a novel solution. He decided to contact champion German giant-rabbit breeder Karl Szmolinsky, whom he undoubtedly read about on the internet like the rest of the world. We recently met up with Karl and his mutant rabbits to see what the eff is going on.
Vice: How did you get into breeding rabbits?
Karl Szmolinsky: It all started at a show in 1964. Out of all the rabbits I liked the Deutsche Riesen most. They had good bone structure and form. I bought a female and four babies and I’ve been breeding ever since. Back in the early days no one believed you could grow a rabbit bigger than 12 pounds, but my club did it. Starting next year they’re going to put a 27.5-pound limit on competition weight. I can understand why. Each competition judge has to inspect around 70 rabbits per show and after a while you know you’ve been lifting rabbits.
What makes a prize rabbit?
The judges look at weight, posture, ear length, and facial proportions. Then they make sure there are no mutations or oddities, like protruding penises. The rabbits should also have black rings around the tops of the ears. You see all sorts of tricks. This one guy got his hairdresser girlfriend to dye the rabbit’s ears but the judges noticed when the color started coming off on their hands. They were banned for two years.
How do you get your rabbits so insanely big?
Everyone has a different theory. My friend Siegfried feeds his rabbits beans but I tell him they’ll never get big if he doesn’t change their diet. I use diverse foodstuffs, but always organic. I cook for my rabbits too. Three times a week I cook a fresh meal with plenty of greens. Herbs are essential to protect the rabbits from intestinal disease. It can make them swell up overnight and then in the morning they’re dead.
That makes sense. But where do the North Koreans fit into this?
I got a call one day from the head of our club. He said the North Koreans wanted to buy a couple of Riesen. I had some I was going to kill for Christmas so I said yes. The North Korean Embassy asked if they could come to inspect my rabbits. Two weeks later what seemed like the entire staff of the North Korean Embassy turned up at my door. The minister of agriculture came too. He just kept saying, “Riesen... Riesen, 22 pounds...
22 pounds!” They didn’t care about anything else. They said they’d take the six biggest, including my prize rabbit Robert. I gave them a special price because they told me it was for a good cause. They were going to breed my rabbits to feed the starving children in their country. I also gave them a book about how to look after rabbits. That turned out to be a mistake.
Why? What happened next?
One month later the rabbits were sent off to North Korea. We tried calling to make sure they had arrived safely but nobody answered the phone. Then they said that the rabbits were in a museum, which I thought was a bit strange. They had studied the book I gave them and said they didn’t need me anymore, but that they would still fly me to North Korea to oversee the breeding center they were building. I was so excited. I’ve lived in this little town my whole life and have never been abroad. Then the day before I was supposed to fly I got a call at 5:35 in the morning saying, “Herr Szmolinsky, you’re not needed anymore. We have everything under control.” I tried calling the embassy but as soon as I said my name they would just hang up. I’d even done a deal with the ZDF [local TV channel]. They were going to do a film about me. They made me a personalized hat and jacket. But the North Koreans said without a visa we wouldn’t be allowed in. Then everything went completely quiet.
Did you ever find out what happened to your rabbits?
A few weeks later a journalist from London called me. He’d just got back from the birthday celebrations of Kim Jong-il and said he’d seen my rabbits, including Robert. They were being eaten by the leader and his guests. It’s clear to me now that the whole thing was a big scam. They sent in their ministers and invented a story to trick me, just so they could put on a fancy banquet for their leader. In my opinion all politicians are bandits. They’re definitely not getting any more of my rabbits.
Has anyone else wanted to buy them?
The agriculture minister from Cameroon came to look at my rabbits. They wanted to start breeding to combat widespread starvation but it was never going to work. Cameroon’s too hot for rabbits. I’m currently in negotiation with the Chinese government. I don’t mind selling to the Chinese. A friend of a guy I know had a house there and said it’s much more like the West, not like North Korea.
INTERVIEWED BY TOM LITTLEWOOD