Cook and tell: Another chef spills the beans
By Aidan Foster-Carter
How's that for timing? Or should I say, Time-ing? In my last column, on Kim Jong-il's private life (The Dear Leader, demystified, June 24), I mentioned his sister-in-law Song Hye-rang among the growing genre of first-person accounts of the Dear Leader: noting that she pulled her punches, and that her memoir is not yet available in English.
Little did I know that Time was about to run a cover story on Sung Hae Rang, as the magazine renders her (don't start me on the pitfalls of romanizing Korean). It's a fascinating tale, which I won't repeat here: check it out. But as I'd said, she still defends her bro-in-law - or at least tries to explain why he is as he is.
We also learn that she (herself?) is translating her memoir, The Wisteria House, into English. Not very fast, it seems, since The Economist mentioned this as under way back in 2000. Maybe she still fears the wrath of Kim, as Time implies. (Since defecting in 1996 she lives in Europe - but won't reveal where.) Her daughter Li Nam-ok, whose book Gilded Cage was due out in 1998, is similarly taking her time.
But others are jumping into the breach. The no-longer-so-private life of Kim Jong-il is now chronicled enough for distinct sub-genres to have emerged. As we saw in the last Pyongyang Watch, the Dear Leader's bodyguard, ex-tutor, a kidnapped South Korean fim couple, and a Russian host have all published intimate accounts.
One category we don't yet have is "kiss and tell". Although if the Dear Leader really prefers Swedish blondes, as alleged, it may be only a matter of time before one of them breaks cover and reveals all.
In this Kim is luckier than his hapless son Kim Jong-nam, banished to Beijing after his embarrassing unmasking two years ago traveling incognito with his family at Narita airport (see Fat Bear: No meeting Mickey Mouse any time soon, May 11, 2001). Allegedly headed for Disneyland, he was later revealed to have made other, solo visits to Tokyo of a nocturnal nature. Paid female companions have even detailed his endowment and performance, unflatteringly.
But if Kim Jong-il is so far spared the blushes of "kiss and tell", he is not free from an emerging genre that might be called "cook and tell". In the proverb, too many cooks spoil the broth - but the Dear Leader's problem is that too many cooks spill the beans. First one, and now another of his former chefs have published memoirs of haute cuisine at the top, in a land racked by hunger for most of its people.
The pioneer in this field is right here at Asia Times Online. If there is any Pyongyang Watch reader who has not already feasted on Ermanno Furlanis' "I made pizza for Kim Jong-il", then go tuck in right now. Billed as "a quixotic culinary journey into the stomach of darkness", this describes how in 1997 two Italians spent three weeks in North Korea, training pizza chefs and preparing meals for you know who. (Go to ATol's Korea Page; links to the three-part series are at the bottom of the right-hand column.)
Yet Furlanis never actually met Kim Jong-il. The nearest he got was a glimpse from a window of the man "whose girth was the measure of his power". By contrast, Kenji Fujimoto - whose book Kim Jong-il's Chef came out in Japan on June 20 - had a far closer encounter, over a much longer period: almost 20 years. The Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo recently published two articles about his experiences.
Fujimoto first visited North Korea in 1982. In 1988 he became the Dear Leader's exclusive sushi chef. A year later his role widened into that of companion: the two men went riding, shooting, and water-skiing together. As such, Fujimoto confirms that, as rumored at the time, Kim Jong-il had a serious fall from a horse in 1992. Breaking his collarbone and injuring his head, he was unconscious for several hours.
Fujimoto makes several other striking claims. One is that in 1995 North Korea had a nuclear accident: presumably a radiation leak, since party secretary Kim Ki-nam reported that workers at the (unnamed) plant were sick, with some losing their teeth. Kim Jong-il made no response. In 1989 he had asked Fujimoto his view of nuclear weapons, himself opining that North Korea was vulnerable without them.
Kim showed more emotion in 1994, when his father Kim Il-sung died. The Dear Leader took this hard, staying in his room all day for a while. At one point his wife found he had a pistol, and yelled at him: "What are you thinking?"
This wife is presumably his current consort Ko Yong-hee, the mother of his second son Kim Jong-chol. Reports in Seoul this year, citing Korean People's Army (KPA) internal documents, claimed a new cult is forming around Ms Ko. This was seen as a bid to boost Jong-chol, aged 22 and the army's choice, to be his father's eventual heir, as opposed to his unfortunate elder brother Kim Jong-nam.
Not so, says Kenji Fujimoto. Kim Jong-il thinks his middle son is "like a girl" (so much for gender equality under communism). Instead he favors his little-known youngest son, 20-year-old Kim Jong-woon, who is said to "resemble him in every way". Perhaps Jong-woon too is Ko Yong-hee's son, as the Dear Leader is not known to have had any official consort since her; he had several before. Ko, incidentally, is a returnee from Japan; her family hails originally from Cheju island in South Korea.
And the food? Nothing but the best, of course. Shark's-fin soup, of a particularly rare kind, is on the menu four days a week. Sushi is once a week, and dog soup on Sundays (plus "every special dog-food-eating summer day"). Kim Jong-il has a very sensitive palate - Furlanis and Pulikovsky say the same - noticing even minute changes in ingredients, and disliking spicy food. Yet Furlanis reported meeting a curry chef just recruited from Pakistan: strictly korma, perhaps.
On spice of another kind, Fujimoto speaks of girls dancing nude at banquets - but strictly no touching, let alone sex. His own wife was a member of Kim Jong-il's "pleasure squad", and a well-known singer - which did not spare her from being ordered to box with a fellow entertainer. My, what jolly fun.
By Fujimoto's account, which tallies with others, Kim Jong-il was "not cocky most of the time ... he always smiles and has many hobbies". But he is mercurial. Fujimoto often saw him bawl out officials, in person or on the phone - with faulty or incomplete intelligence reports a particular bugbear. Once he even threw a steel (not silver?) napkin box at Chang Sung-taek, his brother-in-law and chief confidant.
So why did Kenji Fujimoto give up this life of voyeurism and luxury, speedboats and Mercedes? On a visit to Japan in 1996, he was arrested carrying a fake Dominican Republic passport (Kim Jong-nam was caught traveling on one of those, too). After this he feared that some in Pyongyang suspected him of spying. In 2001 he defected via China, after realizing his phone calls to Japan were being tapped.
Can we believe all this? Probably. Despite the lack of corroboration, and possible embellishment here and there, in general this confirms the picture painted by others. To Kim Jong-il's chagrin, his ex-chef won't be the last to reveal that behind the absurd mask of deification, there lurks an aging spoiled brat.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, Leeds University, England.
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