Famine has long plagued the North Korean regime but especially hit the headlines in the Nineties, when it is estimated that three million people died of starvation or malnutrition. In recent years, this same issue has afflicted Kim Jong-un’s state. The World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed that 40 percent of the nation’s 25.55 million citizens did not have enough food. Poor harvests caused by devastating monsoons regularly create an annual food deficit of between one to two million metric tonnes – recent record-high storms are expected to worsen this crisis even more. While many in the regime struggle, unearthed accounts reveal the shocking delicacies afforded to the nation’s elite – disclosed by a defector who claimed the preferential treatment was hidden from the public.
One of North Korea’s former poet laureate’s Jang Jin-sung, who fled from the nation in 2004, detailed the brutal inequalities experienced by citizens in his memoir ‘Dear Leader’.
In the book, he recounted how trains were often used to transport produce to desperate people in hard-struck parts of the nation – all outside of the capital city Pyongyang.
Prior to 1994, when then-leader Kim Jong-il enacted a change to police, the public relied upon sustenance from government handouts.
Jin-sung described that the Public Distribution Service “determined the allocation of every basic necessity of life” – most notably “ration sizes” which “served as a marker of class”.
He explained that there were four types of rations the highest was Daily, followed by Three-day, Weekly and Monthly.
Daily Rations were considered a “generous amount of supplies” and reserved for those within Kim Jong-il’s inner circle such as “Central Party Secretaries, Directors and Corps Commands in the military”.
“The honoured few” in that category would receive them every day in a “refrigerated Nissan truck”.
Jin-sung recalled: “Those who were admitted to Dear Leader’s circle, such as myself, received individual rations on a weekly basis, instead of household rations.
“This included 5 kilos (11lb) of seafood and meat, 21 kilos (46lb or 4st 4lb) of rice, 30 eggs, two bottles of cooking oil and fresh produce.”
Three-day Rations were handed out to those with ranks equivalent to a minister, party secretary and Central Party cadres ranked Deputy Director.
Departmental directors in the Central Party institutions and section chiefs received Weekly Rations, he explained.
The “vast majority of ordinary North Koreans” were allocated Monthly Rations – the smallest amount – until they were controversially scrapped in 1994.
The lower classes, who arguably needed food the most, had it stripped from them, while the same treatment was not experienced by the privileged.
Jin-sung wrote: “Weekly Rations and the grades above still remain in force – enjoyed only by the loyal and fortunate.
“But the ration classes that applied to cadres were kept as a secret from the ordinary populace, because they had relied solely on rations and suddenly had to fend for themselves – while cadres were still supplied.
“At the time, a nationwide campaign of ‘self-sufficiency’ was promoted in order to urge people to make do on their own, following the example of the General.
“This meant that the suppression of information about the rations enjoyed by the higher classes was all the more strictly enforced.”
Despite the calls for “self-sufficiency” that Kim Jong-il ‘championed’ – the leader was far from hungry, in-fact he indulged in lavish and exquisite meals.
During this time, Kenji Fujimoto, a masterful Japanese sushi chef was in the leader’s employment until he defected in 2001.
He recalled how the leader, his son – the future leader Kim Jong-un – and others, had an “insatiable appetite” for the meals he prepared.
The chef described the expensive feasts they savoured, having had ingredients sourced from all around the world, in his 2003 memoir ‘I was Kim Jong-il’s Cook’.
Fujimoto was only able to escape because of the then-leader’s gluttony.
He showed the dictator footage of a sea urchin dish made on Japanese TV and promised he would cook it for him – if he could source the produce himself.
The ruler told him it was a “great idea” and encouraged him to “go for it” – this wasn’t the first time Fujimoto travelled overseas to buy produce for him.
But this time, it was a ploy to allow him to leave the country, escape his minders and then flee, where he could then return to his home nation.
Chris Mikul also attested to the claims of Kim Jong-il’s “notoriously expensive tastes” in the book ‘My Favourite Dictators’, released last year.
He wrote: “He loved French wines and had a cellar stocked with 10,000 bottles.
“He was the world’s greatest consumer of Hennessy’s Paradis cognac, importing up to $700,000 (£525,000) worth of it a year.
“He had a team of chefs who could reproduce the signature dishes of many countries, with two brought in from Italy just to make him pizza.”