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Kim Jong-Il’s sushi chef

Kenji Fujimoto (藤本 健二) spent eleven years living in North Korea, eventually becoming Kim Jong-Il’s personal sushi chef and confidant. GQ magazine recently interviewed him back in Japan. Here’s his extraordinary story.

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. And guesthouse 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 official Rodong 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.”

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Header image: Maple leaves and bamboo stems in autumn at Tenryū-ji garden (天龍寺庭園) in Kyoto. Photo: Frank Gualtieri.

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