Rich Taste in a Poor Country

Times Staff Writer

Kim Jong Il likes to eat sashimi carved from a live fish. He hates anchovies on his pizza. He insists that the grains of his rice be absolutely uniform in size and color.

The North Korean leader might be one of the world’s most enigmatic figures, but thanks to a growing and eclectic body of books and articles that detail Kim’s epicurean habits, more is known about what he eats than nearly any other head of state.

In what might be labeled cook-and-tell literature, two of his former chefs have written up their experiences and revealed the secrets of the most important part of any Kim Jong Il residence -- the kitchen.


Three years ago, Italian Ermanno Furlanis wrote a series of confessional magazine articles titled “I Made Pizza for Kim Jong Il.” A more recent entry in this genre is a book published last year in Japan and South Korea by a sushi chef who worked for the reclusive dictator from 1988 to 2001 and now lives in Japan. North Korean defectors and even Kim’s family members also have been sufficiently impressed by his eating habits to dwell on food in their memoirs.

What can be gleaned from these accounts is that Kim, 62, is becoming one of the world’s most legendary gourmets -- so much so that North Korea watchers believe the way to his psyche is through his stomach.

“He’s the biggest foodie in Asia,” said Michael Breen, the British author of a recently published biography of Kim.

While his countrymen scrounge for food in barren forests, Kim has spent an incalculable chunk of his nation’s limited wealth feeding himself.

His wine cellar reportedly contains nearly 10,000 bottles, his library thousands of cookbooks and texts on gastronomy. Chefs have been flown in from around the world to cook for him.

An institute in Pyongyang, the capital, staffed by some of North Korea’s best-trained doctors, is devoted to ensuring that Kim eats not only the most delectable but also the most healthful foods -- all the more important for the 5-foot-2 Kim, whose weight once pushed 200 pounds.


“The purpose of the institute is 100% to prolong the life of Kim Jong Il,” said Seok Young Hwan, a physician who worked there and later defected to South Korea. He said 200 professionals were working just in the division that handled Kim’s diet.

So insistent is Kim on eating the best of everything that he sends trusted couriers on shopping missions around the world. His sushi-chef-turned-author, who writes under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, revealed that he made trips to Iran and Uzbekistan to buy caviar, to Denmark to buy pork, to western China to buy grapes and to Thailand for mangos and papayas.

Once, on a whim, Kim sent him to Tokyo to pick up a particular herb-scented rice cake. Fujimoto calculated that each bite-size cake ended up costing about $120.

Former North Korean diplomats who were stationed abroad have told South Korean intelligence that they were asked to send each country’s delicacies to Pyongyang for Kim’s consumption -- among them such exotic items as camel’s feet, said a South Korean biographer, Sohn Kwang Joo.

Other world leaders have exhibited distinctive eating habits -- Bill Clinton was mocked for his junk-food addiction, and 300-pound former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany wrote a cookbook -- but few have been known to be as fussy as Kim.

Kim insists that his rice be cooked over a wood fire using trees cut from Mt. Paektu, a legendary peak on the Chinese border, according to a memoir written by a nephew of Kim’s first wife. He has his own private source of spring water. Female workers inspect each grain of rice to ensure that they meet the leader’s standards. (The nephew, Lee Young Nam, who defected to South Korea in the 1980s, was assassinated by suspected North Korean agents in Seoul in 1997.)


Kim’s refined palate is not merely a matter of idle gossip, but the subject of serious study by political psychologists trying to understand the North Korean leadership.

Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist who founded and was the longtime director of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, says Kim’s obsession with eating the best food comes from being the son of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, revered by the propaganda machine as a god-like figure. Post diagnosed the younger Kim as a malign narcissist in large part based on information about his eating habits.

“This is how you prepare food and water for a god. Nothing remotely imperfect should cross his lips. He has this special sense of self so that there is no contradiction between the exquisite care that goes into his own cuisine and the fact that half his population is starving,” said Post, who also has profiled such figures as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Kim’s biographer is equally critical.

“This kind of spoiled elitist behavior is not so unusual. You see it in South Korea in some of the sons of the rich and famous,” Breen said. “But for such a person to be head of a country in dire need of leadership is nothing less than tragedy.”

A South Korean analyst, however, finds some comfort in Kim’s epicurean tastes.

“Kim Jong Il loves life. He is a drinker, a womanizer, a gourmet. To start a war requires an ascetic like Hitler who doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But I can’t see Kim starting a war that he will surely lose,” said Kim Kyung Won, a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.

The leader’s obsession with food apparently dates to his boyhood. Like many children, he was a fussy eater. Researchers found a note written by a teacher in 1952 -- the height of the Korean War -- detailing how to feed the 10-year-old heir to the North Korean leadership. (Kim’s tastes at the time ran to more humble Korean dishes such as bean-paste soup and cabbage-wrapped rice, according to the note.)


Jo Yung Hwan, a South Korean scholar, says Kim’s preoccupation with food grew after the death of his mother when he was 7. Jo was particularly struck by an account of a Japanese waitress who claimed that Kim as an adult liked to have food put in his mouth as if he were a child.

“That kind of behavior comes from lack of motherly love,” Jo wrote in a 1996 psychological study of Kim.

For most of his adult life, Kim has been renowned for his profligate lifestyle. To some extent, the tales of decadent womanizing and drinking might have been exaggerated by South Korea’s anti-communist propaganda, but much of it probably was true. In the early 1990s, trade figures leaked to the media revealed that Kim was the largest single consumer of Hennessy cognac, importing more than $650,000 worth of top-of-the-line stock a year for his private collection.

Kim is believed to have moderated his ways on the advice of his doctors. He reportedly quit smoking in 1999 and lost weight. He switched from cognac to red wine.

“He was really obese. We recommended that he eat more traditional Korean foods and natural herbs that were good for the heart and veins,” said Seok, the doctor who worked as a researcher at the Long Life Research Institute in Pyongyang.

The institute, founded in the 1970s to oversee the health of the North’s founder, also commandeered exotic foodstuffs for Kim Jong Il that were supposed to have medicinal properties. These included blue-shark liver from Angola and a lion extract procured in Tanzania.


Admittedly, some of Kim’s tastes might be considered unappetizing. He apparently relished some foods so fresh that they were still wriggling. His former sushi chef boasted that he was able to slice a fish, artfully sparing its vital organs, so that it would still be alive when served to Kim as sashimi.

“He was loud in his praises, saying it was extremely delicious,” chef Fujimoto wrote.

South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee, who was abducted to North Korea and spent eight years there before escaping, was shocked when Kim served her a bottle of liquor that contained a snake “moving about and looking like it was belching,” Choi wrote in a memoir.

Of course, most North Koreans have no idea what Kim is eating or how much he spends to obtain it. In a country where even a bowl of rice is considered a luxury, the relentless propaganda machine always refers to Kim as sharing the suffering of his people with a humble diet.

“That evening, potato dishes were prepared for his simple dinner,” the official KCNA news agency reported in 2002 in a characteristically fawning account of a birthday meal Kim shared with soldiers. “In this way, Kim Jong Il spent his birthday with devotion to the country and his people.”

On the other hand, consignments of live lobster and French wines were flown in at four stops during a train journey through Russia in 2001, according to a book published the next year by Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim. The menu usually consisted of 15 to 20 dishes.

Pulikovsky emphasized, however, that Kim was not a glutton but a gourmet.

“His dining is very moderate and modest. He would take only a little, as if to taste it,” wrote Pulikovsky, who apparently spent much of the journey discussing gastronomy with Kim as well as procuring Russian delicacies. “You get the feeling that he knows what’s what in culinary matters.”


Kim’s sushi chef also was impressed with his boss’ knowledge of cuisine.

“You should enjoy a meal first with your eyes, second with your nose and third with your tongue,” Kim liked to say, according to Fujimoto’s book, “I Was Kim Jong Il’s Cook.”

A more critical account comes from pizza chef Furlanis, who published a three-part memoir in magazines about a stint in North Korea in 1997.

Furlanis was alternately appalled and fascinated by the luxuriousness of the walled seaside compound where he worked. The kitchen, he says, was a vast, white-tiled room equipped with the finest appliances, as antiseptically clean as an operating room and as reverently hushed as a church. It was, in short, a temple of gastronomy.

“I doubt if even Federico Fellini could have concocted something of this magnitude,” Furlanis wrote.

Furlanis’ job was not only to cook for Kim, but to teach North Korean cooks how to replicate his efforts. The eager North Koreans even used a ruler to measure the distance between the olives on a pizza.

During his three weeks in North Korea, Furlanis glimpsed Kim only from afar. Furlanis’ minders never uttered Kim’s name aloud but referred cryptically to a very important guest who, Furlanis was admonished, didn’t want his food too salty and hated anchovies on his pizza.


Nevertheless, Furlanis and other cooks were treated as honored guests. They were paid well, lavishly wined and dined, and pampered in much the same style as Kim himself.

“Every now and then, a kind of courier would show up from some corner of the world. I saw him twice unloading two enormous boxes containing an assortment of 20 very costly French cheeses and one box of prized French wines,” Furlanis wrote. “That evening, dinner -- a feast worthy of Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’ -- was served with an excellent Burgundy.”

Nonetheless, Furlanis objected that all the wine came from France. Three days later, a courier brought a shipment of Barolo wines from Italy.