North Korea is a mythically strange land, an Absurdistan, where almost nothing is known about the people or, more important, their missile-launching leaders. There is, however, one man—a humble sushi chef from Japan—who infiltrated the inner sanctum, becoming the Dear Leader’s cook, confidant, and court jester. What is life like serving Kim Jong-il and his heir? A strange and dangerous gig where the food and drink never stop, the girls are all virgins, and you’re never really safe. We sent Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson to meet the man who survived all the craziness:
Fujimoto was the perfect party companion—he was charismatic, expressed his opinions more freely than others, and was always game for another drink. One afternoon, only a few months after he’d returned, he was playing baccarat with Kim Jong-il, who leaned close to him and asked, “Fujimoto, will you stay with me for ten years?”
Kim offered Fujimoto his own sushi restaurant, along with all the proceeds, to be located in Pyongyang’s exclusive Koryo Hotel. Later the same day, Fujimoto flew to Japan to ask his wife for a decade-long separation so he could move to North Korea, a prospect most people would consider a cruel and nightmarish prison sentence.
According to Fujimoto, she said, “What are you talking about? Are you crazy? You could go for three years—the children can bear your absence. But ten years? You’re going to forget about Japan. You’re going to forget about us.”
The karaoke club was freezing. I rubbed my hands together for warmth, but also out of anxiety at the notion of a man hitting up his family for a ten-year pass.
I asked Fujimoto, “Why not take your family with you to North Korea?”
He nearly laughed up his coffee.
I would soon discover that Kim Jong-il had offered Fujimoto something else for his ten years, in addition to the restaurant, something Fujimoto had conveniently neglected to mention.