Food

I Was Kim Jong-il's Private Sushi Chef

Tales of extravagance, unpredictability and mad boozing in the world's most secretive kingdom.

by Pierre Longeray
05 November 2019, 9:27pm

© Kenji Fujimoto in 1991 in Changsong. Courtesy of publisher Hugo & Cie. 

This article originally appeared on VICE France

Early autumn, 1982. It's been two long months since Kenji Fujimoto moved to North Korea. The days crawl by for the Japanese sushi master, who is waiting for the construction of the Pyongyang karaoke restaurant he's been hired to work at by the Japanese-North Korean Chamber of Commerce.

Then, one day in October, the restaurant boss calls him in a panic, telling him to get together whatever he needs to serve sushi to 20 people – fast. Three Mercedes-Benz sedans arrive. Fujimoto gets into one. For two hours, he watches the North Korean countryside pass by, until at last they reach their destination: an opulent seaside building.

It's 2AM when he's finally asked to serve sushi to the banquet attendees. The event goes off without a hitch; Fujimoto recalls one man wanting to know which type of fish is being served (it's toro, tuna belly). The man asks for seconds.

Returning to Pyongyang two days later, Fujimoto freezes when he sees a restaurant hostess flicking through a local newspaper. The man who wanted more toro is plastered over the entire front page. Fujimoto realises he's just spent an evening with the son of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung: the future dictator, Kim Jong-il.

Soon after, the Mercedes-Benz appears again: Kim Jong-il is hungry. Fujimoto is sent to Banquet Hall No. 8, somewhere in the heart of the North Korean capital. This little routine is repeated every ten days, but Fujimoto doesn't tell anyone he's prepping meals for the leader-apparent. The dictator is so appreciative of Fujimoto’s cooking that he gifts the chef a Mercedes V450 and a North Korean license. Fujimoto and Kim Jong-il go on to forge a unique relationship via the medium of sushi.

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The teppanyaki space in Banquet Hall No. 8. Image by Kim Jong-il.

Kenji Fujimoto's friendship with the dictator was recorded in his book The Dictator's Chef [in Japanese, and released in French this year], while the chef is said to have spoken to journalist Anna Fifield for her unauthorised biography of Kim Jong-il The Great Successor, released this summer.

The story takes place during a very dark period for North Korea: attacks and assassination attempts punctuate political life, while the population is literally dying of hunger (at least 1 million would die during the famine of the mid-1990s).

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Kenji Fujimoto drinks a Kirin Lager, imported from Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea's elite are living in a bubble – and Chef Fujimoto is granted entry.

In 1988, Kim Jong-il asks the sushi master to become his personal chef, which means living by his side. In addition to holding this official post, Fujimoto soon enters the dictator’s inner-circle and is smothered with gifts. During one card game, prizes include a piano, a Sony camcorder and a heated toilet seat.

Kim Jong-il apparently even plays matchmaker between Fujimoto and Om Jong-nyo, a young singer and boxing champion. The two marry, with Kim Jong-il himself arranging not only the wedding but also the confiscation of the chef's passport – to be certain of his loyalty.

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Kenji Fujimoto and Om Jong-nyo's wedding.

As Fujimoto recalls, he wakes up in the middle of his post-wedding banquet – having downed a bottle of Hennessy – to discover that someone has shaved off all of his pubic hair while he was blacked out. According to the chef, boozing is part and parcel of life in Kim Jong-il’s inner circle.

At parties, the dictator often orders his guests to down shot after shot of cognac. Kim himself apparently goes through long periods of sobriety, as advised by his doctors. But then he’ll loosen the reins. During one drunken meal on one of the dictator's yachts, Fujimoto says Kim urinates into a plastic bag, whirls it around above his head and then tosses it into the sea.

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On a restaurant/boat in 1989. On the menu: steamed chicken and cold naengmyeon noodles. Uncharacteristically, Kim Jong-il is wearing casual shorts.

The chef does his food shopping not by car, but airplane. For fruit, he goes to Singapore; for caviar, Russia or Iran; for fish, his native Japan.

"Food is first and foremost a feast for the eyes – its shape and colour should be enjoyed," Kim Jong-il often tells him. His kitchen staff are forced to inspect each individual grain of rice – only those deemed perfect make their way onto the leader’s plate.

A fan of culinary experiences, the dictator also takes a liking to ikizukuri, raw fish served cut up and still alive, a style to which Fujimoto introduces him. Meanwhile, Kim has another little weakness that’s rather less spectacular: he loves instant noodles. Specifically, Nissin-brand Rao noodles.

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Though life in the hermit kingdom appears to suit Fujimoto, Kim Jong-il never forgets to remind people who's boss – for example, during a jet-ski race on North Korea's Yalu river, Fujimoto wins, thinking he’s impressed the dictator. But one month later, Kim Jong-il announces he wants to get his revenge. He has a new, more powerful model, and this time he annihilates Fujimoto.

A few years later, Fujimoto gets a better idea of what it means to upset the dictator. Having failing to clean up his room in one of Kim Jong-il’s properties, Fujimoto is condemned to six months of forced labour in a Pyongyang gymnasium, where he must prepare sushi.

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Preparing a sushi lunch with members of the Secretary’s Office, near Changsong in 1989.

Despite various twists of this sort, Fujimoto doesn’t think about leaving the country until the beginning of the new millennium, when he is sentenced to nearly two years of house arrest after a trip home to Japan results in him being suspected of Japanese loyalties.

Feeling the tide turn against him, Fujimoto plots to escape once his house arrest is over. Just as food brought him into Kim Jong-il’s palace, he believes it might be able to get him out.

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A vegetable garden belonging to the party, at the Central Committee site in Pyongyang.

In March of 2001, Fujimoto decides to show the dictator an episode of the cult programme Dotch Cooking Show, devoted to uni-don – a dish consisting of sea urchin and rice. Seeing Kim's response to the dish, the chef offers to procure Japan’s best urchins from Hokkaido. Kim Jong-il agrees. One month later, Fujimoto boards a plane, with a slightly bigger suitcase than usual. Bound for his homeland, he leaves the kingdom and his dictator friend behind.

Nearly 20 years later, it's all water under the bridge. Welcomed back to North Korea in 2013 by Kim Jong-il's son Kim Jong-un, Fujimoto permanently returned to Pyongyang in 2017, where he has opened a sushi restaurant and a small ramen bar.

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