The Way to Understand Kim Jong-il Was Through His Stomach

The Way to Understand Kim Jong-il Was Through His Stomach.

12.19.11 5:44 PM ET

In 2003, a Japanese sushi chef using the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto penned a memoir that gave rise to the expression “cook and tell.” The subject of Fujimoto’s indiscretion was Kim Jong-il, for whom he had served as personal chef for more than a decade. The rotund North Korean leader had greater passion for good food than for beautiful women, allowing his chef as intimate an understanding of his psyche as any of his many purported mistresses, though none of them—as far as I know—ever wrote a memoir.

Fujimoto was recruited in 1982 by a Japanese-Korean trading company to work at an elite restaurant in Pyongyang for $5,000 per month. Six years later, he was asked to be the personal cook for Kim Jong-il, then the heir-apparent to his father, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung. As Fujimoto tells it, he soon became a companion to the younger Kim. Both men were in their 40s at the time. They went horseback riding, hunting, and jet-skiing together. They ogled dancing girls at banquets. But most of all, they obsessed about food. Fujimoto ingratiated himself with Kim through his superior knowledge of food. They talked recipes. Fujimoto regaled his patron with anecdotes from Japan’s great kitchens and markets, especially Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, where Fujimoto had spent six months learning how to fillet fish. He showed Kim videos of cooking shows that Fujimoto’s sister had taped from Japanese television.

Although Kim was at the time renowned for his heft (only 5 feet 2, he weighed more than 200 pounds), the North Korean was a gourmet, not a glutton. He took food seriously and owned a collection of several thousand cookbooks. His palate was so sensitive that he could detect if the kitchen added a few grams too much sugar to the sushi rice.

Before cooking the rice, the kitchen staff would inspect each grain individually and discard any blemished by irregularities of shape or color. He ate only the choicest foods and loved the fatty cut of tuna known as toro. Sometimes Fujimoto would prepare sashimi using a trick he’d learned at Tsukiji, slicing so the vital organs were spared and the fish was served writhing on the platter. Kim loved shark’s fin, a delicacy across Asia, and poshintang, a dog-meat soup that Koreans believe strengthens immunity and virility.

Money was no object when it came to food. Fujimoto made shopping trips around the world to pick up ingredients—to Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar, to Denmark for pork, to Thailand for mangoes, durians, and papayas. On a whim, Kim once sent Fujimoto to pick up a box of his favorite rice cakes, which were scented with mugwort and available only at a department store in Tokyo. Fujimoto later calculated the trip put the cost of each bite-size morsel at $120.

Fujimoto worked for Kim until 2001, when he defected back to Japan, escaping on the pretext of making a shopping run to pick up uni, or sea urchin, to make a dish they’d seen on one of the videos. Since the publication of his first book, he has written two more about his time in North Korea. He makes frequent appearances on television, usually wearing aviator shades and a bandana to disguise his identity. I never got a chance to speak directly to Fujimoto (when I requested an interview shortly after the publication of his first book, I was told there would be a fee), but I have read excerpts of his writing translated into English and heard his views on issues ranging from denuclearization to the process for choosing a successor in North Korea. It is as though he peered through the gullet straight into the heart and soul of one of the world’s most enigmatic leaders.

I don’t mean to dismiss what Fujimoto writes. He is taken seriously by the intelligence community and by journalists like myself following North Korea. The chef is one of the few outsiders who has personally met Kim Jong-un, Kim’s youngest son and North Korea’s new leader. Indeed, Fujimoto gained some credibility by correctly picking out Jong-un, whom he’d met as a child, as the likely successor. “A chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality,” he wrote in his first book. He also supplied the world with what was then the first confirmed photograph of the successor.

Another account comes from Ermanno Furlanis, an Italian chef, who published a three-part series in the Asia Times titled “I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il.” The tell-all Italian chef, who worked in the private kitchens for a stint in 1997, never met the North Korean leader (Kim took over after his father’s death in 1994), but got an up-close view of what he and others in his retinue were eating. “Every now and then a kind of courier would show up from some corner of the world. I saw him twice unloading two enormous boxes containing an assortment of 20 very costly French cheeses, and one box of prized French wines. That evening, dinner— a feast worthy of Petronius’s Satyricon—was served with an excellent Burgundy and delicacies from around the world. As an Italian I could not refrain from objecting, and three days later fresh from Italy a shipment of Barolo arrived.”

Yet another tale of excess comes from Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim on a train trip through Russia in 2001 and turned the experience into a book called Orient Express. Pulikovsky says that fresh consignments of wine and live lobster were flown in at various stops along the way and that dinner typically consisted of fifteen to twenty dishes. Kim “would take only a little, as if to taste it,” wrote Pulikovsky, who apparently spent much of the journey discussing gastronomy with Kim as well as procuring Russian delicacies. “You get the feeling that he knows what’s what in culinary matters.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a foodie—except when you are the leader of a small, impoverished country where almost everybody else is eating grass. Most of the excesses described above took place during the famine of the 1990s, which killed off up to 2 million North Koreans, about 10 percent of the population. And the statistics about the death toll do not tell the full story. Those who survived—much of the current population—suffer from chronic malnutrition. A study by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were five inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45 percent of North Korean children under the age of 5 are stunted from malnutrition. It’s impossible to calculate what percentage of the total food budget for 22 million people is squandered on this one person and his coterie of family and friends. In addition to his edibles, Kim is said to have a wine cellar with 10,000 fine bottles and, as has long been reported, to be the world’s single largest customer of Hennessy’s top cognac.

In fact, many serious analysts of North Korea have mined reports of Kim’s eating habits for clues into the nature of the North Korean leader.

The founder and former director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, Jerrold M. Post, in fact diagnosed Kim Il-jong as “a malign narcissist” in large part based on information about his eating habits. Kim “has this special sense of self so that there is no contradiction between the exquisite care that goes into his own cuisine and the shortly after Fujimoto’s book was published. Post, who has also profiled Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, was struck not only by the shamelessness with which Kim craved luxury but also by his fussiness about how ordinary foods should be prepared. Not only was each grain of rice to be inspected but, according to a memoir by one of Kim’s relatives, the rice had to be prepared the old-fashioned way over a wood fire using trees from Mount Paektu, a legendary peak straddling the Sino-Korean border that Kim claims (falsely) as his birthplace. Post suggested the elaborate preparation of the rice is in keeping with the ideological underpinnings of a system in which Kim and his father are treated as divine—more like the former cult of the Japanese emperor than a true communist regime. “This is how you prepare food and water for a god. Nothing remotely imperfect should cross his lips,” said Post.