What we know about North Korea is limited to what those lucky few who have managed make it out alive have been able to recount publicly. Still, we only have a skeletal framework for what life inside North Korea is really like its millions of residents. The little we have pieced together over the years has painted a grim portrait for all except the country's elite. The country has been ruled by an increasing number of paranoid leaders, each one seemingly more so than the last. We don't know much about their personalities, the intricate workings of the leaders themselves. At least, not until recently.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson wrote an amazingly comprehensive piece for GQ Magazine on sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto. Fujimoto served as Kim Jong-il's personal chef for 11 years and is eager to give interviews to those who will pay him. He understands that his stories are a rare commodity. In 2003 Fujimoto published a book recounting stories of his life as the Dear Leader's personal cook. It was a position he held from 1988 until 2001. The sushi chef's interview with Johnson gave us more insight to both the reclusive leader and the man who was his cook and closest friend.
Fujimoto grew up in a less-than-idyllic household; his abusive and alcoholic father kept their family on edge. It taught him how to prepare for the unknown, to not only expect change, but tolerate it. They were lessons that would serve him well as Kim Jong-il's cook. Johnson says that much of the leader's behavior likely stemmed from experiences he had as a child, like watching his brother drowned, or the death of his mother. An insular life surrounded by individuals of varying degrees of loyalty probably did little to help his personal development and growth. In this way the chef and the would-be leader of North Korea shared a common bond of a childhood broken and shattered by trauma.
As a sushi chef, Fujimoto apprenticed for several years before venturing off on his own when he was asked to go to North Korea to teach sushi-making to young students there. He was taken to Pyongyang on a yacht, where he served Kim Jong-il sushi all evening. That's something he would continue to do as the man had taken a unique liking to him. For whatever reason, the cook became one of leader's closest confidants. Reading Johnson's article and then contrasting it with the excerpts from the chef's book, I was struck with the difference in stories.
It's not that either story was factually different, but it is clear in his book that Fujimoto is eager to show himself as a victim, someone desperate to escape:
"One day in March of 2001 I was having a drink on my balcony, looking at the ocean. I was thinking, Oh, at the other end of this ocean is Japan; I wonder when I'll be able to go back next. But I told myself that I just had to be patient."
That passage would lead you to believe that this was a man who consistently feared for his safety and the safety of others, but I remain skeptical of this. While I do not doubt the fear Fujimoto may have had for his life, as anyone in North Korea's inner circle came to fear their lives, I do doubt his eagerness to leave or his fondness for Japan.
Many of the stories Fujimoto recounted to Johnson were familiar tales. Fujimoto recounts stories of Kim-Jong il's rice being chosen by hand to avoid any cracked or broken pieces, the 10,000 bottle liquor cellar, the cross-country flights to pick-up ham from Denmark, wine from France, and sushi from Japan, and of course, the women. We have heard this before from Fujimoto who recants them to anyone with a pocket full of money.
"During a banquet one night a group of five dancers in the entertainment entourage were performing a disco dance. Suddenly Kim Jong Il ordered, 'Take off your clothes!' The girls took off their clothes, but then Kim told them to take it all off. They seemed surprised and could not hide their bewilderment, but they could not object to their Dear Leader's orders. In awkward embarrassment they stripped down and continued their performance in the nude."
There were, however, some revelations we didn't know about. Like Fujimoto introducing Dear Leader to his favorite television program, Iron Chef, or teaching his sons basketball.
Photo of the original Iron Chef series via blogspot.
In the interview published in GQ, Fujimoto makes clear that he was unaware of the human rights abuses. Supposedly even after he initially left North Korea and returned to Japan for four years he made no effort to find out more about the country or the men who lead it. He didn't ask how his salary was supplemented or where the endless supply of attractive women came from. Not only did he not ask, he went back to North Korea when asked by the Dear Leader. He agreed to stay there for 10 years, leaving behind everything — including his wife and children.
Fujimoto was gifted a new wife by the dictator, a pop singer with bobbed hair that the sushi chef had lusted over. A woman twenty-years his junior, she would be the one to tell him about the gulags and where the endless supply of women came from. They were sex slaves stolen from Taiwan and trained to perform and satisfy the leader's every whim. Far from seemingly troubling the chef, he continued to perform his duties as chef and trusted ally. Eventually he became somewhat of a caretaker for Kim Jong-Il's two sons.
On a trip to acquire ingredients in 1996, Fujimoto was taken into questioning by Japanese authorities who were eager to learn of the stories of the reclusive man behind one of the world's most secretive and brutal dictatorships. Kim Jong-il is a man who is to blame for the starvation of some 2 million and disappearance of untold others. Fujimoto told the authorities the stories they wanted to hear, but was eager to return to North Korea, and he did 18 months later. Upon his return he found out that Kim Jong-il had sent an assassin after him, and that his wife and children had been sent to a labor camp where one of his sons died. Fujimoto watched as men disappeared around him, never to be seen again. This time he really did fear for his life and he escaped the country yet again, only to return once more to beg Kim Jong-un for forgiveness.
He longs to go back for good, to be reunited with his young wife. Now fully aware of the atrocities of the regime, he does not seem to be interested in how his extravagant lifestyle probably lead to the pain and suffering of others. Instead, he looks to the Kim Jong-il's sons for continued benevolence and for a home.
Adam Johnson's impressive interview is truly deserving of a read. It tells us of a regime paralyzed by paranoia which extends outwards and affects all those who come near it. The propaganda from the country is such that even a sushi chef from Japan has come to believe in its truth. For Fujimoto, it might be much easier to believe the lies that he has been told than to have to come to terms with the fact that he was witness to countless atrocities.