Given that North Korea is so bizarre, we see no reason why writers of fiction shouldn’t have their shot at offering insight. We confess we couldn’t get through Adam Johnson’s highly-regarded Orphan Master’s Son; something about the internal life of the North Korean agents just struck us as wrong. But his GQ feature on Kim Jong-il’s chef Kenji Fujimoto is a great read. Even if Johnson is a novelist, and the stories completely beyond confirmation, they strike us as weirdly plausible.
The central themes of the long story are excess and the isolated, parallel universe of the absolute dictator. Fujimoto landed in North Korea as a sushi chef to train others in 1982, and ended up returning in 1988 to serve as Kim Jong-il’s personal chef. “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.” Parties would last for days, attended by “executives” that included high-ranking state, party and military officials as well as the rumored “Joy Division” of beautiful under-aged girls.
To say that this was high-risk employment is an understatement; Fujimoto recounts more than one life-and-death loyalty test and he emerges as just as strange as his dictator boss. At one point, he asks his wife if she minds if he departs for a ten-year stint in North Korea without her. He subsequently was married off—Reverend Moon style—to a well-known North Korean singer who spoke no Japanese. Fujimoto never seems to have learned much Korean, just the sort of outsider who might be trustworthy.
As he became a more and more intimate companion of Kim Jong-il—joining parties, racing jet skis, playing baccarat—his position became the object of suspicion on the part of the court. He subsequently even became a kind of nanny to the kids, including Kim Jong-un. “Fujimoto introduced them to video games, remote-control cars, and most important, basketball. Fujimoto’s sister in Japan sent him VHS tapes of Bulls playoff games, so Kim Jong-un’s first taste of Western hoops came from watching Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman—men who became his heroes.”
What makes the story credible is exactly what Fujimoto did not know. He selected wine from Kim Jong Il’s 10,000 bottle cellar and watched movies from his collection of 30,000 DVDs but knew little about the country or the complex political intrigues that Kim Jong Il navigated following the death of his father in 1994.
Fujimoto was temporarily delivered from his effective captivity following his arrest by authorities while on a sushi-buying trip to Japan; he was debriefed for 18 months and was subsequently visited by an assassin who sent the signal but did not do the job.
On his subsequent return to North Korea, relations were clearly strained and he finally engineered his escape by promising to hunt down a new delicacy for Dear Leader. This betrayal did not prevent him from returning yet again following Kim Jong-un’s ascent, a visit replete with a drinking contest with the young leader.
Who knows? Fujimoto’s life in Japan was far from easy; from a hard-scrabble background to North Korea’s inner sanctum, to an out-of-the-way sushi restaurant is a lot of ups and downs. Fujimoto has lived in part by giving paid interviews, a game that lends itself to inventing new material. But the portrayal of the court is just that: a leadership living in a thick bubble of excess. That portrayal certainly fits with our priors. Definitely worth a read.