I’ve been living in South Korea for about the last three years, and naturally I’ve taken quite an interest in most everything Korean. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson has a supremely interesting piece up in GQ that helps illuminate the mindset of deceased dictator Kim Jong-il and the Hermit Kingdom he inherited.
Johnson had six interviews with Kenji Fujimoto (an alias), a man who was Kim Jong-il’s personal sushi chef for thirteen years. The man’s story is powerful and informative, although one gets the distinct impression that Fujimoto isn’t the best of company himself. According to the chef, this was one of the reasons that he was trusted enough by Jong-il to be a member of his entourage for over a decade. The Johnson account recalls several instances in which Fujimoto had the courage or reckless audacity to oppose the will-be Dear Leader. He was the only person who stood up to the diminutive despot.
Knowing almost nothing about North Korea and the horrors it perpetrated, Fujimoto agreed to move there for one year in 1982 to train Pyongyang chefs in the art of preparing sushi. Soon after he met Kim Jong-il, although he initially had no idea that he was speaking to the the son of Kim Il-sung, who ruled the nation from 1948 to his death in 1994.
He and Kim Jong-il became something akin to friends, with the pair often playing traditional Korean board games together. He learned that Jong-il loved movies, particularly Arnold Schwarzenegger flicks, and was interested in foods that could increase his sexual vitality.
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Fujimoto then returned to Japan after fulfilling his contract. However, he was contacted four years later with another job offer to be Kim Jong-il’s personal chef for three years. He was promised a high salary, an apartment in Pyongyang and a black Mercedes. Tempted by promises of wealth, he returned to North Korea in 1988.
In addition to cooking carefully coordinated meals for the heir to the North Korean throne, Johnson describes the sushi chef’s worldwide culinary wheeling-and-dealings as well as describing his relationship with Kim Jong-il:
“For special occasions, Fujimoto traveled great distances to procure ingredients for elaborate banquets. He would take a North Korean Air Koryo plane to Beijing, then a commercial airliner to either Moscow or Prague, places Kim stored a private jet. From there, it was off to France for wine or Denmark for ham. Mostly he flew to Japan to buy fish, where the first stop was always a ramen stand at Tsukiji run by Fujimoto’s old friend Inoue. Fujimoto brought many officials to eat Inoue’s noodles, including Kim Jong-un’s brother Kim Jong-chul.
Fujimoto became part of Kim’s entourage, joining him for pheasant hunts and tours on Kim’s bulletproof train. The two went horseback riding, bowling, roller-skating, and swimming. In Wonsan, Kim had an underground bombproof Olympic swimming pool constructed with his image emblazoned in gold tiles on the bottom. North Korean engineers had even built him a motorized boogie board.”
Not long after arriving for his second tour of duty, Kim made it known that he wanted Fujimoto to stay in North Korea for ten more years. Incredibly, the chef agreed to the terms. Kim paid for the expensive separation and even arranged for him to be married to a well-known singer in Korea. The couple had two children, the youngest of which was named Jong-un. Although Fujimoto claims it’s a coincidence that one of his children’s names is the same as Kim Jong-il’s youngest son and current North Korean despot, that seems unlikely. According to Fujimoto and Johnson, the sushi chef was handpicked to be a nanny and playmate of the Kim children; naming his child after Kim’s seems like a safe bit of political patronage.
Fujimoto’s account also details some of the events after Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 when Kim Jong-il wielded his considerable and Machiavellian political acumen to secure his ascension to power.
Soon after becoming Supreme Leader, a large famine struck the nation. Before its onset, crop production of North Korea was steadily rising, a rare and slight success story for the Kim dynasty. The agricultural minister then in charge, supposedly the architect for this success, was honored for his efforts by being interred in the Patriots’ Cemetery upon his death.
Johnson recounts Kim’s reaction to the initial agricultural success and later the subsequent insanity at its ultimate failure:
“…Kim Jong-il wanted more. He ordered the new agricultural minister to improve crop production by cutting down trees on hillsides to make room for terrace farming. Come the next rainy season, that deforestation would cause the flash floods that would destroy the crops that would cause the famine that would slowly kill 2 million people.
As the famine unfolded, according to Bradley K. Martin, a preeminent North Korea expert, Kim Jong-il had his new agricultural minister executed by firing squad. As the famine became devastating, Kim Jong-il had the former agricultural minister’s body exhumed from the Patriots’ Cemetery and subjected to a posthumous execution by firing squad.”
Fujimoto was arrested in Tokyo in 1996 on a trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. He was repeatedly questioned by authorities over a period of 18 months. After understanding Fujimoto’s position and importance, officials moved him to the south of Japan to work at a sushi bar. They also provided him with books describing North Korean gulags and the myriad other atrocities committed in the Hermit Kingdom.
Johnson details Fujimoto’s encounter with a would-be assassin:
“One night, a Korean man came to see Fujimoto at the sushi bar. By his accent, Fujimoto could tell he was from the North. He said, “Someone sent me here, and after you finish your work, we’re going to talk about something.”
Fujimoto knew a killer when he saw one. But after work, the man didn’t return. In fact, Fujimoto never saw him again. For the first time during all his escapades in North Korea, Fujimoto became afraid. He was also depressed. He couldn’t get the torture books out of his head. He was drinking a lot. He was lonely and wanted to return to Pyongyang, to his wife and children. On July 9, 1998, the Japanese agreed to release him. But first they extracted a promise: If he ever left North Korea again, he was to call them and report in.”
Fujimoto honored his promise with the Japanese officials. He called them on a trip to China while shopping for exotic foods for Kim. However, his hotel was bugged and a suspicious Kim put the chef on house arrest for 18-months. This provided the impetus for his desperate desire to escape back to Japan.
The sushi chef’s full account is well-worth the longish read. He goes on to detail how he ultimately escaped from North Korea in 2001 by enticing Kim Jong-il with sea urchin roe, a delicacy the Dear Leader had never experienced. On a trip to Japan to procure the roe he slipped away from his handlers and went into hiding.
The perils of being close to dictators, the loyalty they demand and the propaganda the exude seem to have had an effect on Fujimoto. During his interview he states:
“If Kim Jong-il were here right now,” Fujimoto said, “I would kneel down and apologize. I’d admit that I left North Korea and I disclosed secrets about North Korea. I am a traitor, an absolute traitor.”
Fujimoto was invited back to North Korea by Kim Jong-un in June 2012. He describes his reunion with the leader:
“I jumped up to hug him, shouting ‘Comrade General’ and instantly burst into tears … He hugged me back, the first hug in 11 years. I said, ‘Fujimoto the betrayer is back now,’ and I apologized for all I did and all I disclosed about him. He said, ‘OK, don’t worry anymore.”
He also describes how different Pyongyang looks compared to just ten years ago:
“I went window shopping from the third day. There are plenty of goods in shops. That’s already a big difference. There was nothing there 10 years ago … I guess it changed drastically since the Kim Jong Un era started.”
There are reasons to be skeptical of some of Fujimoto’s claims. His wife and children still live in the North and it’s entirely understandable that some of his lavish praise for Kim Jong-un is designed to protect them. He has written several books detailing his experiences as Kim Jong-il’s personal chef, and it’s possible he’s sensationalizing their relationship to boost sales. He could also be a man turned by the despotic and luxurious charm of the Kim dynasty. Or he could be a man who is genuinely ashamed of his betrayal.
Who knows? Maybe he’s all of things at once, with layers of deceit and honestly carefully wrapped like the sushi rolls he was paid to delicately craft. At any rate, it’s a rare glimpse into the most secretive and tyrannical nation in the world.