The weekend's news of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il shook the world. Kim had been revered as a god by his people thanks to his, and his father's, iron grip over the populace. What's going to happen next? Can Kim's youngest son consolidate power? Will he overcompensate and do something aggressive and stupid?
The elder Kim kept such draconian control of information that very little is known about the country. What we do know comes from the handful of dissidents who have escaped, who have told of barbaric torture, systemic control and mass starvation.
One such dissident was Kim's own personal sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who escaped and wrote a tell-all book in 2003 about working for the North Korean despot for 10 years.
Fujimoto (his pen name; he lived in hiding in Japan for fear North Korean spies might kill or kidnap him) told of Kim's lavish tastes and gluttony. The leader liked to eat his sashimi so fresh that he wanted the mouth of the fish to be still moving when he took his first bite. How Fujimoto cut that, I'm not sure, but he claims to have been able to avoid the vital organs to keep the fish twitching.
Kim indulged in what he could get his hands on in his isolated country: mostly women, but he was also a fan of American vices, particularly liquor (he stocked Johnnie Walker Swing Scotch and Hennessy XO cognac). And Fujimoto was enlisted to travel the world to bring Kim the greatest delicacies: fruit from from China, Thailand and Malaysia; beer from Czechoslovakia; pork from Denmark; caviar from Iran and Uzbekistan; and seafood from Japan. And to wash it down? Kim enjoyed a generous stock of fine French wines. All while their neighbors to the South fried up the best chicken you've ever had. At least we can be pretty sure Kim's claims that he invented the bulgogi slider are unwarranted.
Kim insisted that his rice be inspected grain by grain so that broken grains would be extracted. (While that does sound like some painstakingly tasty fried rice, what a jerk -- we can only imagine how many heads of kimchi were deemed unsuitable). In fact, Fujimoto used Kim's exacting greed to escape. He showed him a Japanese cooking show which featured an uni dish, knowing that Kim would want to have it. Indeed, when Fujimoto was sent to Japan to retrieve the sea urchin, he escaped.
The sushi chef's many stories couldn't be corroborated, but there have been enough legitimate reports that make clear that while Kim allowed his people to starve, he and his generals have lived well. This is a nation of 22 million people, which saw a famine that killed up to three million in the 1990s.
Former president Jimmy Carter more recently reported that one in three children are malnourished in North Korea. In fact, the U.S. was just about to announce a large donation of food aid to North Korea, perhaps in time for a major meeting between the two countries in Bejing this Thursday.
But the death of the leader may put a hold on that. Nobody knows what appetites or inclinations Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, may have.
You got to figure that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. But we can hope.