Another former employee of North Korea's secretive dictatorship — a personal shopper — has escaped to tell his story. Here's a roundup of the bizarre details he, and two chefs, told of their time working for the world's weirdest dictator.
The people of North Korea have, for decades, been starving to death while a madman spends the country's dwindling fortune on weapons and himself. And, of course, on propping up his totalitarian regime. As Nicholas Kristof wrote "entire families [are] sometimes executed if one member gets drunk and slights the Dear Leader." The country's nickname, the hermit kingdom, is hard-earned. Very few reports have emerged from the highest levels of government, and even fewer from the court of Kim himself. Here's what we know from the few who have escaped — forced stripteases and all.
For 20 years Kim Jong Ryul, now 75, was the regime's personal shopper. A bright, educated former army colonel, who spoke English, German and Japanese, his job was to travel the world buying everything from Mercedes Benzes to weapons and nuclear equipment for the dictatorship. Though this interview in the LA Times is maddeningly short on specifics — it speaks very broadly of luxury goods — Kim said he shopped in Europe and America and paid 30 per cent over the asking price for anything potentially awkward to stop people asking any questions. At the same time he began putting three per cent of every transaction into a private bank for himself. Eventually, in 1994, he faked his own death (again, the LAT is bizarrely vague on the topic) and went into hiding in Vienna, leaving his wife and two children behind. He has never seen, nor heard from them, since, and doesn't expect to — although he's confident they're still alive. Now, in conjunction with two Austrian journalists, he has written a book about his experiences. The LAT, again, do not provide a release date, or any details. Maybe they're being North Korean.
In 2003 a Japanese chef, pseudonym-ed Kenji Fujimoto, released a book called I Was Kim Jong Il's Chef. It's about his work for the dictator between 1988 and 2001, when he too escaped. Though, strangely, it was never translated into English, the Atlantic Monthly excerpted it here. It's filled with bizarre scenes like this one, about Kim's "Entourage of Delight" — a troupe of entertainers he keeps for his personal pleasure.
The women of this entourage were frequently summoned to the "Number 8 Banquet Hall" in Pyongyang to perform elegant dances. The stage of this hall was equipped with an elaborate lighting system that included footlights on the sides and even a disco mirror ball hanging from the middle of the ceiling with strobe lights. The floor was also decked out with lights that flashed from below, and floor-to-ceiling speakers pounded out music.
During a banquet one night a group of five dancers in the entertainment entourage were performing a disco dance. Suddenly Kim Jong Il ordered, "Take off your clothes!" The girls took off their clothes, but then Kim told them to take it all off. They seemed surprised and could not hide their bewilderment, but they could not object to their Dear Leader's orders. In awkward embarrassment they stripped down and continued their performance in the nude.
After a while he turned to his cabinet staff members and instructed them, "You guys dance with them too." And soon enough I, too, was ordered to dance. However, he cautioned us, "You'll dance, but you won't touch. If you touch, you're thieves."
The tales get no less bizarre. Kitchen staff would examine each grain of rice to be served to the Dear Leader individually, removing any chipped or defective grains. When Kim had a riding accident, and required painkilling injections, he made five or six members of staff get them too. If he became addicted, he did not want to be the only one. Kim challenged Fujimoto to a jetski race. Fujimoto won. The next time he saw the dictator, he had upgraded his jetski to a far more powerful model.
Kim keeps 10,000 bottles of liquor in a cellar, and sends his chefs around the world for opulent foods like caviar and the finest sushi. When Fujimoto decided he had had enough, he used this to his advantage. One day he showed Kim a video of an exquisite sea urchin dish being made.
...when he saw the sea-urchin dish, he exclaimed, "Wow, that looks really good!" Without missing a beat I made my pitch: "I will go to Rishiri Island, in Hokkaido, and buy some sea urchin. And I will reproduce the dish you just saw on this show."
Kim Jong Il replied, "That's a great idea. Go for it!"
Fujimoto never returned. He too is now in hiding.
The last intimate report we have of life at the top in North Korea is also from a chef, an Italian pizza expert named Ermanno Furlanis. As food in North Korea dwindled in the early 2000s, it seems the regime was seeking an inexpensive, simple to make, cuisine to feed the masses. It settled on pizza, according to Furlanis and he was flown in to teach senior army officials how to make it. He cooked for Kim himself, which must have been an evening off for Fujimoto, but only saw the Dear Leader briefly in passing. In this three part series from the Asia Times in 2001, he spends a lot of time describing how oppressive and controlled life in Pyongyang is — when he arrived his passport was taken along with a large sample of his blood. His movements were restricted, but he was shown some of the kingdom's great treasures (kept, of course, by Kim) in a giant pavilion.
There were precious jewels, Chinese vases which we later saw in Beijing selling for thousands of dollars, tables of engraved ivory, bas-reliefs in ivory and oak, crystal vases, cups in gold and silver. But thus as not all: beside the precious objects you also had the uniforms and arms of various revolutionary movements from around the world. I trembled before a machine gun of the Sendero Luminoso and found particularly memorable the saddle cloth used in parades for Gadaffi's camel woven of gold and studded with precious stones. One room contained a train car with a luxurious salon which had been a gift of Stalin. I shall not attempt to describe the amount of priceless treasures we saw. In the four hours we spent there we only saw the smallest portion.
To Kim Jong Il's current chef — if this ever reaches you, your stories are welcome here.
[Pictures via the Associated Press. The first is of the Dear Leader in 2001, the second shows him visiting a factory in 2008 and the last is of Kim on an unspecified mountain with his father Kim Il Sung, the previous dictator, in the early 1990s.]