I Was Kim Jong Il's Cook

True stories from the Dear Leader's onetime chef

By Kenji Fujimoto

The author, who writes under a pseudonym, is a Japanese sushi chef. In 1982, at the invitation of a Japanese-North Korean trading company, he started working in a sushi restaurant in Pyongyang. In 1988 he agreed to serve as Kim Jong Il's personal chefa job he held until 2001. In April of that year, having realized the extent of the paranoid and oppressive surveillance he was under, he escaped to Japan. In 2003, in Japanese, he published Kim Jong Il's Chef (Fuso Publishing, Inc.), from which these excerpts are drawn.

Well known in Japan from TV and tabloid coverage, Kim Jong Il's "Entourage of Delight" is just that—a group of entertainers devoted to providing Kim Jong Il with delight and gaiety.

The women of this entourage were frequently summoned to the "Number 8 Banquet Hall" in Pyongyang to perform elegant dances. The stage of this hall was equipped with an elaborate lighting system that included footlights on the sides and even a disco mirror ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling with strobe lights. The floor was also decked out with lights that flashed from below, and floor-to-ceiling speakers pounded out music.

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.

After a while he turned to his cabinet staff members and instructed them, "You guys dance with them too." And soon enough I, too, was ordered to dance. However, he cautioned us, "You'll dance, but you won't touch. If you touch, you're thieves." In other words, I think Kim Jong Il felt these girls were like his own daughters.

.....

Kim Jong Il has an exceptionally discriminating palate. There is an episode I remember well that demonstrates this. I was preparing sushi in the Number 8 Banquet Hall. All of a sudden Kim Jong Il said, "Fujimoto, today's sushi tastes a little different."

He had had a lot to drink that evening before the meal, and I suggested that maybe that was the reason.

He replied, "Maybe..." He seemed doubtful, but didn't pursue it any further.

However, when I returned to the kitchen, I checked the seasoning used that day and found that the sugar was ten grams less than usual! Kim Jong Il was the only one who had noticed. Even I was astonished at this.

With respect to rice, before cooking it a waiter and a kitchen staff member would inspect it grain by grain. Chipped and defective grains were extracted; only those with perfect form were presented.

.....

Kim Jong Il is an avid equestrian, and has even appeared in a TV movie atop a snow-white horse. (All horses belonging to the Kim family are white.) I often accompanied him on long rides. A group of guides would lead the pack, followed by Kim Jong Il, his wife Ko Young Hee, the children, and me.

One day in 1992, as I was riding behind Kim Jong Il at a right-turning path, I noticed that his horse was standing by itself. Kim had fallen off the horse. It had apparently slipped on a bed of pebbles laid over some asphalt being repaired. Kim Jong Il had hit his head and shoulder quite hard and had fallen unconscious. A doctor was called immediately.

I'm not sure when he regained consciousness, but the next day we all returned to Pyongyang by his private train.

From that day, every evening at 10:00 P.M. for the next month, five or six of his administrative staff members and I would be injected with the same painkiller that Kim Jong Il was taking. He was afraid he would become addicted to it, and didn't want to be the only one.

.....

To procure various foods and ingredients I made many trips abroad. Each time Kim Jong Il ordered me to go buy this or that, flight arrangements would be made and I would go off.

Fish was the most sought-after item from Japan. High-quality tuna and squid, one of Madame Ko's favorite foods, were often requested. Once I bought 1,200 kilos in total; the air-transport fees alone were exorbitant.

The reason the shipment weighed so much was that I had bought a very large Indian tuna whole. I also bought an electric saw to use to fillet the fish. I had once spent six months filleting tuna at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, and I wanted to show Kim Jong Il and his family my technique.

In any event, here are the countries I visited and the foods I frequently bought there:

Urumqi (in northwestern China) for fruit, mainly hamigua melons and grapes
Thailand for fruit, mostly durians, papayas, and mangoes
Malaysia for fruit, mostly durians, papayas, and mangoes
Czechoslovakia for draft beer
Denmark for pork
Iran for caviar
Uzbekistan for caviar
Japan for seafood

.....

As I was riding a Jet Ski on a lake near the Chinese border, Kim Jong Il came up next to me and said, "Fujimoto, let's race. But I want you to take it seriously."

He gave the signal to start, and I rammed the accelerator as hard as I could. Halfway through I looked at him and realized that I was leading by about half a boat length. For a moment I thought I was making a mistake, but I remembered that he had said he wanted me to take the race seriously, so I crossed the finish line first.

Kim Jong Il said begrudgingly, "You win, Fujimoto."

At that moment I thought maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to win, and I regretted it a bit. But he had said it was a serious race, so I decided I wasn't wrong in winning. Until then nobody else had ever won a contest against Kim Jong Il.

A month later he once again challenged me to a race. However, this time at the starting line I was surprised to see that he had traded his old Jet Ski for a much larger one. With a different engine capacity there was no way I could win.

At this time several areas in North Korea were suffering from floods and food shortages. Whether he was aware of this or not, Kim Jong Il certainly seemed to be enjoying his Jet Ski races.

.....

One day during a meal Kim Jong Il suddenly said, "Fujimoto, I've heard that in Japan there is a rice cake filled with mugwort. I want you to go and buy it tomorrow!"

In addition he told me to buy every brand of Japanese cigarette and to spend no more than three days on the trip.

I departed promptly, and when I reached the Beijing airport, I placed a call to the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo's Ginza district to reserve 100 regular red-bean-filled rice cakes and 100 mugwort-filled rice cakes. The next morning I retrieved the cakes and immediately marched back to Beijing. Each cake cost only about 100 yen, but I calculated that with air and hotel expenses each one cost a whopping 1,500 yen [about $14].

Thus I made my whirlwind round trip between Pyongyang and Tokyo to make a rush hand delivery of rice cakes and cigarettes to Kim Jong Il.

When I lined up the Japanese cigarettes on the baccarat table, Kim Jong Il smoked only the menthol kinds. At the time, he had been smoking a British brand called Rothmans Royals, but he said he had wanted to try Japanese menthols as well. After that he smoked Cartier menthols, but from 1998 to 1999 he quit smoking altogether.

As for the rice cakes, he awaited the approval of the inspection staff before tasting them. Once he did, he was very satisfied and remarked, "Japanese rice cakes are really delicious. Why can't our cooks make them this way? The aroma of the mugwort is also very nice."

.....

From 1989 through 1991 I was invited often to Kim Jong Il's official residence. There he kept a very large liquor cellar. Famous liquor brands from around the world were lined up, maybe about 10,000 bottles in all.

At the time, Kim Jong Il drank Johnnie Walker Swing for whiskey and Hennessy XO for cognac.

The liquor cellar also had a karaoke set, a piano, and a round table that could seat fifteen or sixteen people. There, I remember, we often sang together the Japanese song "The Bride in Seto."

.....

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.

And then, at that moment, I remembered that my sister had dubbed several dozen of her more interesting videos of Japanese TV shows for me. Among them was a tape of a cooking program called The "Which Dish?" Show. I recalled that an exceedingly tasty-looking sea-urchin dish was featured on the show, and thought that I should show it to Kim Jong Il. I knew that he was very fond of sea urchin, and that once he saw the show, he would want to try the dish. That would be my chance. I would just have to suggest, "Shall I go to Hokkaido to buy sea urchins for you?"

I took the videotape to Kim Jong Il. Lo and behold, when he saw the sea-urchin dish, he exclaimed, "Wow, that looks really good!" Without missing a beat I made my pitch: "I will go to Rishiri Island, in Hokkaido, and buy some sea urchin. And I will reproduce the dish you just saw on this show."

Kim Jong Il replied, "That's a great idea. Go for it!"

Translated from the Japanese by Makiko Kitamura

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/01/i-was-kim-jong-ils-cook/308837/