North Korea is a mythically strange land, an Absurdistan, where almost nothing is known about the people or, more important, their missile-launching leaders. There is, however, one man—a humble sushi chef from Japan—who infiltrated the inner sanctum, becoming the Dear Leader’s cook, confidant, and court jester. What is life like serving Kim Jong-il and his heir? A strange and dangerous gig where the food and drink never stop, the girls are all virgins, and you’re never really safe. We sent Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson to meet the man who survived all the craziness.
The sushi chef was leaving his apartment when he noticed the stranger outside. He could tell by the man’s suit—black and badly made—that he was North Korean. Right away, the chef was nervous. Even in his midsixties, the chef is a formidable man: He has thick shoulders, a broad chest; the rings on his strong hands would one day have to be cut off. But he’d long since quit wearing his bulletproof vest, and the last time a North Korean made the journey to visit him in Japan, a decade ago, he was there to kill him.
The chef’s name, an alias, is Kenji Fujimoto, and for eleven years he was Kim Jong-il’s personal chef, court jester, and sidekick. He had seen the palaces, ridden the white stallions, smoked the Cuban cigars, and watched as, one by one, the people around him disappeared. It was part of Fujimoto’s job to fly North Korean jets around the world to procure dinner-party ingredients—to Iran for caviar, Tokyo for fish, or Denmark for beer. It was Fujimoto who flew to France to supply the Dear Leader’s yearly $700,000 cognac habit. And when the Dear Leader craved McDonald’s, it was Fujimoto who was dispatched to Beijing for an order of Big Macs to go.
When he finally escaped, Fujimoto became, according to a high-level cable released by WikiLeaks, the Japanese intelligence community’s single greatest asset on the Kim family, rulers of a nation about which stubbornly little is known. We don’t know how many people live there. (Best guess: around 23 million.) It’s uncertain how many people starved to death during the famine of the late ’90s. (Maybe 2 million.) Also mysterious is the number of citizens currently toiling their way toward death in labor camps, places people are sent without trial or sentence or appeal. (Perhaps 200,000.) We didn’t even know the age of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, until Kenji Fujimoto revealed his birth date. (January 8, 1983.)
What we know of North Korea comes from satellite photos and the stories of defectors, which, like Fujimoto’s, are almost impossible to confirm. Though North Korea is a nuclear power, it has yet to build its first stoplight. The phone book hasn’t been invented. It is a nation where old Soviet factories limp along to produce brand-new refrigerators from 1963. When people do escape, they tend to flee from the countryside, where life is more dangerous. Because people rarely defect from the capital, their stories don’t make it out, which leaves a great mystery in the center of an already obscure nation. Which is why Fujimoto’s is the rarest of stories.
This winter, I flew to Saku for a series of interviews with Fujimoto. I had spent six years researching North Korea for a novel, and in that time I had spoken with experts, aid workers, defectors—everyone with a story to tell about life there. Yet I hadn’t spoken to Fujimoto. It was December when I arrived, and a dusting of snow blew through the town’s car lots and bare-limbed apple orchards. Here, Fujimoto’s friend owns a battered five-stool karaoke bar, and this is where we met. Inside, it was cold enough to see your breath. The toilet was a hole in the floor where urine, billowing steam, disappeared into darkness before freezing.
Fujimoto made us coffee, which helped, and through an interpreter I asked him what he knew about North Korea when, in 1982, he signed a one-year contract to teach sushi-making skills to young chefs in Pyongyang.
"I didn’t know much about it," he said. "I knew that Kim Il-sung was the leader of the country. I knew about the thirty-eighth parallel. That’s about it."
He couldn’t recount ever having met a Korean. Still, he was restless at home, and the pay was good. So packing only his knives and clothes, he left his wife and daughters in Japan and flew to Pyongyang.
It was August when he arrived, a time when the capital city is especially alive. The summer days are long, yet the hard work of fall harvest—which requires the forced labor of all Pyongyang’s inhabitants—had yet to arrive. Families were picnickingon Mansu Hill, while young couples strolled along the Taedong River. By day Fujimoto labored for ten-hour stretches at the cooking school, showing eager trainees the art of sushi. At night he retreated to the Pyongyang hotel where he lived with other guest workers—mostly Chinese technicians and engineers—and strummed old Japanese ballads on a guitar he bought at Pyongyang’s Number One department store.
With the arrival of fall, he began training chefs on the east coast, in the seaside city of Wonsan. One day, several black Mercedeses arrived at the cooking school. The first car bore the license plate 2-16, Kim Jong-il’s birthday. The second contained five women kidnapped from Thailand to be used as sex slaves. Fujimoto was asked to get into a third car.
At a lavish Wonsan guesthouse, Fujimoto prepared sushi for a group of executives who would be arriving on a yacht. Executive is Fujimoto’s euphemism for generals, party officials, or high-level bureaucrats. In other words, Kim Jong-il’s personal entourage. Andguesthouse is code for a series of palaces decorated with cold marble, silver-braided bedspreads, ice purple paintings of kimilsungia blossoms, and ceilings airbrushed with the cran-apple mist of sunset, as if Liberace’s jet had crashed into Lenin’s tomb.
At two in the morning, the boat finally docked. Fujimoto began serving sushi for men who obviously had been through a long party already. He would come to realize these parties tended to be stacked one atop another, sometimes four in a row, spreading out over days.
All the men wore military uniforms except for one imperious fellow in a casual sports tracksuit. This man was curious about the fish. He asked Fujimoto about the marbled, fleshy cuts he was preparing.
"That’s toro," Fujimoto told him.
For the rest of the night, this man kept calling out, “Toro, one more!”
The next day, Fujimoto was talking to the mamasan of his hotel. She was holding a newspaper, the officialRodong Sinmun, and on the front page was a photo of the man in the tracksuit. Fujimoto told her this was the man he’d just served dinner.
"She started trembling," Fujimoto said of the moment he realized the man’s true identity. "Then I started trembling."
The man in the tracksuit invited Fujimoto back to make more sushi. Fujimoto didn’t speak Korean, so he had a government-appointed interpreter with him at all times. At the end of the evening, a valet handed the interpreter an envelope.
"From Jang-gun-nim," the valet said.
Perhaps the reason Fujimoto hadn’t known he’d been serving Kim Jong-il was because “no one ever called him by his real name,” Fujimoto said. “Never.”
In Korean, Jang-gun-nim translates roughly as “honored general,” and Fujimoto tried to approximate this in Japanese with Shogun-sama, or “super shogun, meaning great master.”
Fujimoto would never call him anything else. People disappeared for less.
When Fujimoto opened the envelope, he discovered five U.S. hundred-dollar bills.
Soon there was another sushi party, with many shouts of “Toro, one more!” At its conclusion, Shogun-sama tossed Fujimoto an envelope, which landed at his feet. Whether Kim Jong-il meant the envelope to land on the table in front of Fujimoto or whether Shogun-sama wanted to see Fujimoto stoop to retrieve it is unknown.
"I was pissed," Fujimoto said. "I refused to pick it up."
Kim Jong-il stared at Fujimoto, his large glasses and jowls projecting his trademark Pekingese demeanor.
Fujimoto’s interpreter whispered in Japanese that they could be shot for this offense.
But Fujimoto can be a stubborn man. His temper, he says, is “in my DNA.”
Finally the interpreter retrieved the envelope and handed it to Fujimoto.
In it was a thousand dollars.
Over the next week, Fujimoto contemplated how close he’d come to death.
At the next sushi party, Fujimoto had an apology prepared, but it was Kim Jong-il who spoke first, saying, “I’m sorry for my behavior last time.”
Over the years to follow, Fujimoto would never see him apologize again.
Kim Jong-il invited him to play yut nori, a traditional Korean board game. Through an interpreter, Shogun-sama had a long conversation with Fujimoto while they moved their pieces around the board. Kim Jong-il was curious about life in Japan; he particularly wanted to talk about movies and food. He wanted Fujimoto’s opinion on whether a person’s diet could produce longevity. Did Fujimoto believe shark-fin soup warded off cancer? Did Fujimoto eat shark genitals to increase his potency? Did Fujimoto also eat puppy soup on Sundays?
These yut nori sessions became regular, with a black Mercedes arriving to transport Fujimoto to lavish guesthouses. Fujimoto attributes his friendship with Kim Jong-il to his refusal to retrieve the envelope. “Shogun-sama thought I was different from other men, who were always trying to be nice and polite to him. He was surrounded by men who praised him.”
This is true, but it’s certainly more complicated. Though the Japanese are considered an enemy in North Korea—for their brutal invasion, occupation, and subjugation of Korea from 1910 to 1945—Fujimoto’s outsider status had advantages: He didn’t speak Korean and therefore couldn’t betray Kim’s confidences. Fujimoto was also a stranger to the complex allegiances and shifting tides of Pyongyang politics. And because he knew so little about North Korea, he tended to accept Shogun-sama’s version of reality—that the Kims were benevolent leaders beset by jealous enemies.
These were good times for Fujimoto. During the day he trained his students, and at night the shouts of “Toro, one more!” kept coming. Beautiful women were always nearby, and interesting executives kept coming and going. When he spent leisure time with Kim Jong-il, they drank Bordeaux wines and discussed Shogun-sama’s favorite Schwarzenegger movies.
Fujimoto had much to learn. He didn’t yet know that the money for these luxuries came from gulag labor or that the men he served were in charge of Kim’s special divisions: counterfeiting, weapons sales, and drug production. He had no idea that those beautiful girls were taken from their families in faraway lands and that now their sole purpose was to fulfill Kim’s every pleasure. He couldn’t have known that when people disappeared, they went to communal labor farms, re-education camps, or kwan-li-so gulags, which were total-control zones from which no one returned.
The true nature of Kim Jong-il wouldn’t come clear until Fujimoto’s next trip to North Korea, five years later. Thinking he’d had a good adventure, the chef packed up his knives and flew home to Japan—not knowing he’d give up everything to make his way back again.