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Sushi Chef Was Confidant To North Korea's Kim Jong Il


When the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died two years ago, his son Kim Jong Un rose to power. The world knew practically nothing about the young and untested leader. In fact, nobody knew exactly how young he was until his birth date was revealed by a man who goes by the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il's former sushi chef and longtime confidante.

Writer Adam Johnson won a Pulitzer this year for his novel set in North Korea. And he recently conducted a series of interviews with the chef, who now lives in Japan. The insights Fujimoto shared appear in a GQ article out this morning.

And Adam Johnson joined us to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

ADAM JOHNSON: It's my pleasure to be here.

MONTAGNE: Now, this sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, he would have an almost unheard of knowledge of this incredibly secretive regime and the mysterious dictator who's running things, just by being the chef there at his side. How did he find his way, originally, to the inner circle?

JOHNSON: Kenji Fujimoto was a young sushi chef in Japan. He grew up under violent circumstances. Fujimoto escaped to go to the capital. He proved himself extremely loyal and as such, he was a candidate to take a mysterious job overseas. His trade union of sushi chefs required him to accept the job before they told him exactly where it was. And he was a young, adventurous, trusting man who was obedient to authority, and he went. And it turned out the job was in Pyongyang.

MONTAGNE: The job was in Pyongyang and for a dictator who, as he tells it, had an incredible level of decadence.

JOHNSON: That's true. Kenji Fujimoto's story is the most rare of tales. There's really two North Koreas. There's a countryside, with extreme privation, where people are really fighting for their lives; and those are the people who tend to defect. So we have a great portrait of what it's like to live in poverty and repression, in North Korea.

The elites, in Pyongyang, rarely defect. So their stories are much more elusive. So Kenji Fujimoto did go into the inner circles. He spent more than a decade as Kim Jong Il's personal chef, and he was sent on missions around the world - to Iran, for caviar; he would go to Belgium, for beer. And yes, he's the source of most of what we know about Kim Jong Il's life, including his $700,000-a-year cognac habit.

MONTAGNE: Why did he trust Fujimoto?

JOHNSON: Kim Jong Il always had, in his life, a need to be able to confide in one person, and Fujimoto was an outsider who never learned Korean - therefore, couldn't betray his confidences - and who was relatively ignorant about North Korea and could trust Kim Jong Il's version of reality.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's interesting too, again, as he describes it to you, there were these exquisite levels of fear. One thing that you write about is that Kim Jong Il put people through loyalty tests. Tell us the story about the jet ski race.

JOHNSON: Kim Jong Il had what he called guesthouses - which were really palaces; they were all over the country. And it was actually Kenji Fujimoto who suggested that Kim Jong Il get jet skis. One time he said to Fujimoto, hey, let's race. Kenji Fujimoto was very afraid, but Kim Jong Il reassured him. He said, let's make it a real race and don't worry. So Kenji Fujimoto - probably - foolishly believed that. And as the two of them set out to race their jet skis to a small island, Fujimoto gunned it and won.

All the executives of Kim Jong Il told him that he was now a dead man; that he was a fool, and he was going to be killed for it. And while Kim Jong Il wasn't happy, it did instill in him a sense of independence in his outsider friend; that he could be trusted for real opinions. And after that, he did turn to Fujimoto for independent advice.

MONTAGNE: And then during this long and close relationship with Kim Jong Il, he also befriended his sons. And of course, the son we know a little bit about is the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, who just had a visit from Dennis Rodman. But that actually goes back to Fujimoto, according to his stories.

JOHNSON: Kim Jong Il deeply trusted Fujimoto, so much so that he made Fujimoto the nanny for his boys - including Kim Jong Un, who was only 7 at the time. Fujimoto would teach them boy activities that they've never heard of, like video games and roller-skating, and things like that. But most importantly, he thought the boys should learn basketball.

He had Kim Jong Il make a court, and he got videotapes. And the tapes he got were the Bulls' championship run in which Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen became the best in the world. And this is what young Kim Jong Un looked up to, and these players became his heroes.

MONTAGNE: Right. So - you know, cut to today, and you have this really strange story of this American basketball player ending up in Pyongyang. So Fujimoto, he has left North Korea several times. He has always gone back. What did he tell you pulls him back?

JOHNSON: Kenji Fujimoto is a man who in the real world - in our world - is an average man. He doesn't have a job. He doesn't have much salary. But in North Korea, he's a super elite. And so I think he is really drawn to that materialistic, powerful life in which he's at the center of things. And yet that's a life where you're not free, and where danger abounds. So he's torn between true freedom and high living.

MONTAGNE: But did he ever indicate that he understood how bad off the rest of the country was?

JOHNSON: He was at Kim Jong Il's side daily. Kim Jong Il was afraid of flying, so he only moved around the country on his bulletproof train. And Fujimoto said that the only sense of the deprivations of the country came by looking out the windows of the train. And he said that Kim Jong Il would look out the windows and see very thin, starving people wasting away on the sides of the road. But that's as close as Kenji Fujimoto came to the true reality of North Korea.

MONTAGNE: I suppose one could say didn't want to know.

JOHNSON: Well, it makes the cognac taste not so sweet, if you understand where the money came from to buy it.

MONTAGNE: Adam Johnson's article on Fujimoto is out in GQ today. His novel, set in North Korea, is called "The Orphan Master's Son." Thanks very much for joining us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.


MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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