Kim Jong Il: You Are What You Eat

Kim Jong Il

We don’t know the contents of his nuclear arsenal, but we have a pretty good idea of what was inside Kim Jong Il’s refrigerator.

In 2003, a Japanese sushi chef bearing the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto penned a memoir, I Was Kim Jong-il’s Cook. Writing from Japan, where he lives in hiding for fear of being targeted by North Korean agents, Fujimoto detailed his 13 years as the dictator’s personal chef. The book, published in Korean and Japanese, draws a portrait of Kim and his family living a pampered, decadent existence, treating North Korea like their personal plantation and feasting on the world’s delicacies while millions of citizens starved.

Kim was slow to admit foreign food donations to ease his nation’s constant famines, but regularly sent Fujimoto on international missions to satisfy his own appetites. A typical shopping trip included northwestern China for melons and grapes; Thailand and Malaysia for durians, papayas, and mangoes; Czechoslovakia for beer; pork from Denmark; Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar; Japan for seafood and rice cakes; plus the occasional jaunt to Beijing for a sack of McDonald’s hamburgers.

Kim fancied himself to be quite the epicure, although at 5’2″(not counting the 4-inch lifts in his shoes) and 196 pounds he was clearly as much glutton as gourmet. He collected thousands of cookbooks, was reputedly the world’s largest customer of Hennessey cognac, and issued exacting orders for food preparation. Before cooking, the kitchen staff had to scrutinize each grain of rice and discard any blemished by irregularities of shape or color. The rice had to be cooked in spring water from Kim’s private source and steamed over a wood fire using trees cut from a single peak along the Chinese border.

Japanese sushi was a particular favorite of Kim’s, which explains Fujimoto’s presence in his entourage. He claimed a palate so discerning that he could detect a variation of just a few grams of seasoning in the sushi’s rice, and liked fish to be so fresh that it would twitch on his plate. Kim’s sushi obsession ultimately provided an escape route for Fujimoto. In 2001, growing fearful of the paranoid and oppressive regime, the chef showed Kim an episode of the Japanese cooking show Which Dish?, tempting him with a special sea urchin dish. He offered to travel to the Japanese island of Hokkaido to shop for sea urchins, and once there he sought asylum from Japanese authorities.

Fujimoto’s memoir has value beyond the voyeuristic appeal of his tales of excess. He was one of the few foreigners to document life inside the closed, secretive North Korean society, and analysts from international intelligence agencies have mined the details for insight into Kim Jong Il’s nature. Jerrold M. Post, the former director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, built a profile of Kim based largely on information about his eating habits. He diagnosed Kim as a ‘malign narcissist’ convinced of his “special sense of self so that there is no contradiction between the exquisite care that goes into his own cuisine and the fact that half his population is starving.”

In the late 1990s, while Kim indulged shamelessly in the world’s finest food and wines, the state’s propaganda machinery was advising famine stricken North Koreans to dine on foraged grasses and ground tree bark, and its police were sweeping through markets, confiscating smuggled food imports as symbols of ‘rotten bourgeois ideology.’  There were an estimated 2 million deaths by starvation, and 45% of North Korea’s young children were permanently stunted by malnutrition. Fujimoto’s memoir is not a portrait of a world-class epicure, but of a world-class sociopath.



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