Making Pizza for Kim Jong-il

The Seoul Times/August 11, 2006
By Hugh Levinson

Few foreigners get close to Kim Jong-il, the reclusive North Korean leader. But one Italian chef got close enough to make his pizza. The call came in the middle of the night, just as Ermanno Furlanis, a computer expert and part-time chef at the Pizza Institute in northern Italy, was trying to get to sleep.

The call came from a top chef at a swanky hotel. He had been contacted by some foreign diplomats who wanted experts for culinary demonstrations "in a communist country in the Far East."

That country was North Korea.

It was the start of a bizarre adventure into the corridors and kitchens of power, which Mr Furlanis has recounted for a BBC Radio 3 documentary.

A few days after the call, he found himself and a group of fellow chefs on their way to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

He was whisked through the city to a gleaming, empty clinic, for a complete medical check-up. They conducted X-rays, an electrocardiogram and a brain scan, and took magnetic resonance imaging, urine samples and a sizeable blood sample.

"I was by now worried out of my mind," said Mr Furlanis. "Here was proof that we were completely in their power, and they could do with us as they pleased."

They were sequestered in a vast, white marble palace, before being told to prepare for a trip to "a place at the seaside."

Hidden famine

During this period, in the late 1990s, North Korea was going through a severe famine in which an unknown number of people died of malnutrition. All of this was concealed from Mr Furlanis — apart from some glimpses during his car journey out of Pyongyang. "The countryside was poor and backward-looking," he said. "Extensive areas were under cultivation and the buildings looked impoverished and abandoned."

The destination turned out to be a military base, protected by four layers of barbed wire and guards, and surrounded by heavy anti-aircraft guns.

There, Mr Furlanis discovered that his task was to teach pizza-making skills to three army officers, who took the job remarkably seriously.

"While I worked, my pupils, pen and notebook in hand, took down every detail while the rest of the staff, a dozen people or so, gathered round to watch the proceedings in an absorbed silence."

Mr Furlanis said that one of the students even asked to count the olives he used and to measure the distance between them.

"I don't know if he was just pulling my leg, but he looked totally serious," he said.

After several days of tuition came the climax of the adventure — a trip to a huge ship anchored offshore. The North Korean staff had moved Mr Furlanis' entire pizzeria to a pontoon raft moored alongside the ship, where he started to work.

Suddenly, there was huge agitation on board. Crossing the gangplank to the ship was — apparently — Kim Jong-il himself.

"I am not in the position to say whether it really was him," said Mr Furlanis, "but our chef, who had no reason to fib, was, for the space of several minutes, utterly speechless.

"He said he felt as if he had seen God, and I still envy him this experience."

Profile: Kim Jong-il

The little that is known about Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, conjures up a caricature of a diminutive playboy, a comic picture at odds with his brutal regime. Diplomats and escaped dissidents talk of a vain, paranoid, cognac-guzzling hypochondriac. He is said to wear platform shoes and favour a bouffant hairstyle in order to appear taller than his 5 feet 3 inches.

But analysts are undecided whether his eccentricities mask the cunning mind of a master manipulator or betray an irrational madman.

Mr Kim may well encourage the myth-making surrounding him precisely in order to keep the Western world guessing. North Korea has little to bargain with, and ignorance breeds fear.

Film buff

The analysis of him as a mercurial fantasist is certainly beguiling.

He is said to have a library of 20,000 Hollywood movies and to have even written a book on the cinema. He even went so far as to engineer the kidnapping, in 1978, of a South Korean film director and his girlfriend.

This taste for the exotic apparently extends to gastronomy.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian emissary who travelled with Mr Kim by train across Russia in reported that the North Korean leader had live lobsters air-lifted to the train every day which he ate with silver chopsticks.

The two men shared champagne with a bevy of female companions of "utmost beauty and intelligence," according to Mr Pulikovsky. Mr Kim also has a reputation as a drinker. He was seen draining 10 glasses of wine during his 2000 summit with the South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and is known to have a taste for Hennessy VSOP cognac.


But such an unlikely reputation masks Mr Kim's dangerous past.

As head of North Korea's special forces for much of the 70s and 80s, he has been linked by defectors to international terrorist activities, including the 1986 bombing of a Korean Airlines jet in which 115 people died.

Nor should it be assumed that eccentricity means inability. Mr Kim is said to assiduously follow international events on the internet, and some see him as a clever manipulator, willing to take great risks to underpin his regime.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has met Mr Kim, said that the North Korean leader was very well informed and "was not delusional."

"I found him very much on top of his brief," she said, although she noted that some of the comments he made about his plans for the North Korean economy sounded illogical.

Birth 'blessed'

The cult surrounding Kim Jong-il extends even to his birth. He was born in Siberia in 1941 when his father, Kim Il-sung, was in exile in the former Soviet Union. But according to official North Korean accounts, he was born in a log cabin at his father's guerrilla base on North Korea's highest mountain, Mt Paektu, in February 1942.

The event was reportedly marked by a double rainbow, and a bright star in the sky.

The younger Kim graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 1964, and after a period of grooming for leadership, he was officially designated successor to his father in 1980.

But he did not hold any positions of real power until 1991, when he took control of the armed forces — despite his lack of military experience.

Analysts believe he was given the position to counter potential resistance to his eventual succession.

After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, it was three years before he took over the leadership of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

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