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Rich Taste in a Poor Country

North Korea's enigmatic leader Kim Jong Il demands the finest food and drink. But while he indulges, his countrymen starve.

June 26, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — 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.

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