Sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto’s story reads like that of a character from an Ian Fleming book, or maybe an Adam Johnson story. So who better to send to speak with the aging chef than Johnson, whose 2012 novel about North Korea, “The Orphan Master’s Son” won the Pulitzer Prize? That’s what GQ did and the resulting article, just published, offers a look at not only the familiar aspects of his life in North Korea–the booze, women, Kim Jong-il’s fearful fastidiousness, international jaunts for cooking supplies, et al–but also new anecdotes and the revelation that Fujimoto longs for the life he left behind in Pyongyang (and is planning a return).
On his first trip to meet with Fujimoto, Johnson finds the chef in a rather bleak locale:
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’s troubled childhood seems to have prepared him for his years as Kim Jong-il’s chef, to be ever-ready for the dictator’s fiery temper like that of his own father.
Fujimoto was born the son of the most dangerous man in town. His father had just returned from being stationed on the island of Rabaul, site of a bloody confrontation with the Allied forces. The father who went to war had been devoted enough to carry the umbilical cords of his first three children into combat. He’d fashioned a container from a coconut shell, which he kept in his rucksack so that his children never left his side.
By the time he returned, his father had become an aggressive and combative man whose signature move was punching out people’s front teeth, including Fujimoto’s mother’s. Mentions of the war caused him to attack people. Criticisms could set him off. When his father was drinking, Fujimoto could be beaten for anything, like eating candy or misreading the clock. Questions, also, could lead to physical violence. Fujimoto hewed to these unspoken guidelines: He cannot remember ever asking his father a single question. His father’s favorite pastime was taking his son on long drunken bike tours of surrounding villages—with young Fujimoto bracing himself as the bicycle veered one direction, then another, every moment seeming like the moment they would crash. “These were the scariest times of my life,” he recalled.
Turns out that Kim Jong-il could be both abusive and generous, generous enough to reward Fujimoto with a young, beautiful, talented Korean wife. Kim also seems to have had a frat boy’s sense of humor:
Her name was Om Jong-yo. In the bunker beneath his main Pyongyang residence, Kim Jong-il had a 10,000-bottle wine cellar with a built-in karaoke bar. Here, Jong-yo sang “The Bride of Seto.” Fujimoto had seen her perform many times on state-run KCNA television. He’d only had to mention her to Shogun-sama, and here she was, singing for his pleasure. Such were the perks of rolling with dictators.
“I couldn’t help watching her,” Fujimoto said. “Shogun-sama noticed my gaze and said, Oh, you do like her.”
When the two next met, at a guesthouse in Wonsan, Kim seated them together. Seeing their happiness, Kim declared they would be married on February 16, the Dear Leader’s birth date. Fujimoto claims he protested, saying that Jong-yo was far too young—twenty years his junior—and arguing that 2-16 was far too sacred a date for their marriage. Kim Jong-il compromised and set a date of February 26. Soon they were singing a duet of “The Bride of Seto” on their wedding day, an event at which Kim Jong-il enforced heavy drinking, causing Fujimoto to black out. As a wedding prank, Kim Jong-il had the unconscious Fujimoto’s pubic hair shaved off.
The marriage produced two kids though, after fixing a kite that a young Kim Jong-un couldn’t get to fly straight, Fujimoto found himself appointed Kim’s official playmate, a job more important than fathering his own kids:
Fujimoto would be the boys’ new playmate, a position he would hold until Kim Jong-un was 18. 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.
Yet, eventually, after being detained in Japan for 18 months of questioning and then put under house arrest in North Korea for another 18 months, Fujimoto began to fear that one day he’d meet a nefarious end whether because of jealousy, an act of culinary negligence or an unforeseen faux pas. As a result, he plans his escape from the North:
He spent the next year re-ingratiating himself with Kim Jong-il before setting his plan in motion. In March 2001, Fujimoto casually mentioned to Kim Jong-il that he had a new Iron Chef video, an episode Kim had never seen. When they watched it together, Kim discovered the episode’s “mystery ingredient” was one he’d never tasted before: sea-urchin roe, or uni. When Kim asked about uni, Fujimoto described it as the most exquisite delicacy in the world, one whose creamy texture was both oceany and sweet. It could only come from Rishiri Island, off Hokkaido, and only an experienced sushi chef could discriminate good uni from bad.
Ten years after his successful escape, Kim Jong-un took power and Fujimoto was invited to Pyongyang (undoubtedly a dangerous proposition). His old playmate didn’t refrain from taking the piss and Fujimoto made sure to get a book (and a cover shot) out of the meeting:
Fujimoto greeted Kim Jong-un with “The betrayer has returned.” Sobbing, Fujimoto dropped to his knees. Kim beckoned him to rise, and the cover image of Fujimoto’s book about the trip shows him weeping, locked in a bear hug with North Korea’s new leader.
In the end, Johnson finds that Fujimoto’s life and North Korea are forever intertwined–Fujimoto is either writing and talking about his years there or thinking about how he can regain the trust of his old playmate, return to his wife and recapture the glory of his days cooking for Kim Jong-il:
Fujimoto began speaking about how beautiful Pyongyang was, how much it had improved over the past ten years, to the point that he sounded a bit like a propaganda reel. It was here that he revealed a grand and baffling new plan: to leave his aging Japanese girlfriend for his young Korean wife, to live out his days in Pyongyang in luxury, to become Kim Jong-un’s confidant, to get his Mercedes back, and to finally open a restaurant in the Koryo Hotel, this one serving noodles instead of sushi.
Whether Kim Jong-un is ready for a ramen revolution remains to be seen. Sending a kite with a Kabuki image might be a good idea.
See here for an interview about the article with Johnson.