A Diet for Dictators
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 five thousand dollars 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 forties 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 five feet two inches tall, he weighed more than two hundred 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 heir-apparent. 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 the first (and as of this writing in 2010, only) 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' 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 two 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 eighteen-year-old males were five inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45 percent of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition. It's impossible to calculate what percentage of the total food budget for twenty-two 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 ten thousand 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 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 fact that half his population is starving," Post told me in an interview 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.
Yet one gets the feeling that Kim Jong Il, in his heart of hearts, knows that his people wouldn't be pleased if they knew what he spends feeding himself. North Korean propaganda often describes Kim as sharing the suffering of his people and living as they do. For his sixty-second birthday, one account carried by the official KCNA news service described Kim eating with soldiers he was visiting. "That evening, potato dishes were prepared for his simple dinner.... In this way, Kim Jong Il spent his birthday with devotion to the country and his people." The North Korean media often extol the virtues of eating with restraint, a convenient propaganda line in a country where food is always scarce. In the early 1990s, as famine first gripped the country, North Korean state television ran a documentary about a man whose stomach burst, it claimed, from eating too much rice. About the same time, billboards went up around Pyongyang with the slogan, "Let's eat two meals a day!"
North Koreans are also instructed that they should eat only foods distributed by the government's public distribution system and that it is "anti-socialist" to buy or sell staples like rice and corn on the market. As far as growing your own food is concerned, only the smallest "kitchen gardens" in backyards and on rooftops are legal. In recent years, Kim Jong Il's police have swept through markets, confiscated food, and arrested vendors who violate the rules, compounding the existing food shortages, since the government is unable to provide enough to sustain the population.
As for the foreign delicacies enjoyed by Kim Jong Il, North Koreans are instructed that they are to be avoided, like foreign clothing, hairstyles, music, and film, as symptoms of "rotten bourgeois ideology"-to use the language of a Workers' Party pamphlet somebody once gave me. "Make dishes that are familiar to the palate so our people's food is handed down to our descendants," instructed the pamphlet, which was dated from 2005 and distributed to party cadres. "Our people's food is refreshing and has a nice aroma. It stimulates good nutrition and protects your health."
For a country synonymous with famine, North Korea has a surprisingly sophisticated cuisine, distinct in the way it combines sour, sweet, spicy, and pungent ingredients to produce an effect that could best be described as "tangy." It is unlike anything else in Asia, and most Koreans I know, especially North Koreans, complain that Chinese food is too oily and Japanese food too sweet. The distinctive taste is encapsulated by naeng myun, the signature dish of Pyongyang-cold buckwheat noodles served in a vinegary broth with myriad regional variations, including hard-boiled eggs, cucumber, Asian pear, radish, or, in expensive restaurants, slivers of brisket. North Koreans are also good cooks, and many who defect to South Korea end up opening restaurants. Perhaps it is the years of scarcity that have honed their creativity in making tasty things to eat out of meager ingredients. A long history of famines has made Koreans expert in finding wild foods-pine mushrooms, seaweed, tiny clams-and turning them into delicacies. A seemingly endless variety of tasty herbs and greens (many of them lacking exact translations in English) are collected in the wild and served as delicious salads sprinkled with chiles and soy sauce. Schoolchildren are sent out to collect acorns, from which the nuts are extracted and pounded into a pulp to make a jelly known as dotorimuk. For the long winters without access to fresh vegetables, the North Korean diet relies heavily on kimchi, the spicy preserved cabbage that accompanies every meal. Unlike in South Korea and Korean restaurants abroad, where barbecued beef is the most popular dish, in North Korea it is generally not permitted to consume beef, except in small portions in soups or stews. It is more common to get pork, or sometimes goat, rabbit, or dog. But meat of any kind is rare, and most people get to eat it only on public holidays, namely, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il's birthdays, when extra rations are distributed so as to remind North Koreans that all good things in their country result from the munificence of their leadership.
The real problem for North Koreans is the lack of rice. Rice is by far the preferred staple of North Korea-so much so that the word for meal is the same as for rice, bap. Kim Il Sung once promised that North Koreans would be able to eat rice every day ("Socialism is rice," he claimed), but the promise went unfulfilled. Rice, especially white rice, remains a luxury. Most people eat a hodgepodge of whatever grains are available, sometimes barley or corn, but not the way we know it. North Koreans will often throw the cobs and husks into the grinder to make the mixture go further.
Other so-called "substitute foods" include grass and leaves. Andrew S. Natsios, a former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, described in a fine book he wrote in 2001 about the North Korean famine an instructional video obtained from North Korea in the 1990s that showed how to harvest pondweed, dry it out, and add it as an extender to wheat or corn flour for making noodles. "In one part of the tape, corn husks, oak leaves and grass are ground up into powder and passed through a noodle machine," Natsios wrote. "The resulting noodles have little nutritional value, cannot be digested by the human system, and in fact cause severe gastrointestinal problems for those hungry enough to eat them.... In my decade of involvement in famine relief efforts, I had never seen such a bizarre manifestation of a hunger coping mechanism as this videotape."
Other coping mechanisms are equally ineffectual. A doctor who defected from North Korea in 1998 said she used to advise patients to boil noodles for at least an hour to make them look bigger. During the 1990s, young people would climb pine trees to strip away the tender inner bark, which could also be dried out, ground, and used as a flour. Many North Korean defectors describe the degrading experience of looking for spilled grains of rice or corn on the ground, and it was not uncommon for those really hungry to extract undigested kernels of corn from animal excrement.
The North Koreans I've met are, like Kim Jong Il, obsessed with food. They wake up early worrying about what to eat for breakfast, spend their entire day trying to scrounge up something to eat for dinner. Lunch is a luxury. When the UN World Food Programme in 2008 conducted a survey of 250 North Korean households, they found the kitchens empty and most people unable to answer the question, What will you eat for your next meal? "They would give vague answers," recalled Jean-Pierre de Margerie, who was at the time heading the WFP office in Pyongyang. "'I'm hoping my relatives who live on a cooperative farm will deliver some potatoes tonight.'"
One woman I know well was a garment factory worker, a mother of five and a talented amateur cook from Chongjin, a city in North Korea's far northeast. Before the famine, Song Hee-suk would made elaborate meals out of the food rations doled out by what is called the public distribution system. When there was rice, it would be soaked and then ground, to be turned into a dough to shape into cakes that could be served sweet or fried with chiles. Every autumn she made more than nine hundred pounds of kimchi in different varieties, with cabbages or radishes or turnips, seasoned with red pepper, bean paste, baby shrimp. Since meat was scarce, she learned dozens of methods to prepare tofu in soups or stews, or dried and fried-when there was no cooking oil, always scarce in North Korea, she figured out how to fry in soy sauce alone.
When almost everything else had run out and both she and her husband had lost their jobs, she made soup with only water and salt and a handful of the cheapest cornmeal, adding leaves and grass to make it appear as if the soup contained vegetables. She would wake up at 5:00 A.M. to rush out before her neighbors to find the freshest new growth of greens, knowing that tenderer weeds were easier to digest. Mrs. Song survived on little more than this basic diet for nearly a decade, though her husband and only son were not so lucky: they died of starvation in 1997 and 1998, respectively, around the same period that that Kim Jong Il's Italian chef was writing awestruck about the caseloads of expensive cheese arriving from France.
In 2002, Mrs. Song escaped from North Korea and made her way to South Korea, where she now lives. I met her two years later when I started researching a project about the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Since my newspaper's ethics rules forbid paying for interviews, I wanted to make sure that I at least treated North Korean defectors to a good meal during their interviews. Mrs. Song was an eager subject. She was in her own way a frustrated gourmet-while other North Koreans couldn't wait to surf the Internet or watch Hollywood movies, Mrs. Song's desire was to try new foods. We went to buffet restaurants where she could partake from the heaping platters of sushi, mounds of smoked salmon, white asparagus spears, mousses, pecan pies, and dainty tartlets of lemon meringue that were a revelation with each bite. Not that Mrs. Song ever stuffed herself. Like the other North Koreans I'd met, she was terrified when she first saw people who were obese-another revelation-and she always ate slowly, sparingly. I once took her to a French restaurant at the Chosun Hotel in Seoul, where she filled up on the bread basket (I didn't have the heart to tell her you're not expected to eat all the bread). When the filet mignon arrived, she looked at it with some trepidation-big slabs of beef are unheard of in North Korea-and left most of it unfinished on the plate. We had a happier experience when we went back to Korean food, heading with two of her grandchildren and her son-in-law to a restaurant in Suwon, a city south of Seoul famous for its kalbi, barbecued beef ribs. We settled into a booth and the waitress brought out the meat, marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil, and grilled it on a charcoal fire on our table before cutting it off the bone with a pair of scissors. We ate it wrapped in lettuce leaves with bean paste and nibbled from the side dishes-a cold, raw crab in spicy sauce, a sweet radish kimchi, potato salad-and then washed it down with two bottles of a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. I don't think Kim Jong Il ever enjoyed a meal as much.