PYONGYANG — Sushi in Pyongyang? At a restaurant run by a Japanese sushi chef famous for working for North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il?
Kenji Fujimoto has opened his sushi restaurant in the North Korean capital, according to Canadian Michael Spavor, a consultant with a long record of working in the communist state. He was involved with NBA star Denis Rodman’s trips to North Korea, and the two spent days with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father after his death in 2011.
Spavor said he was introduced to Fujimoto just last year, when he learnt about the chef’s plans to open a restaurant in Pyongyang and tried to track it down early this year.
“I was quite excited, because I’d heard quite a lot about him,” Spavor said. “So one day, for lunch, we met up, and we got along great, he speaks fluent Korean, so we spoke Korean, and that’s when he mentioned to me he was planning on opening up a ramen restaurant or a sushi restaurant in Pyongyang.”
It’s rare to find a Japanese business openly operating in North Korea, because of strained relations between the two countries.
But Fujimoto is a special case. He worked for Kim Jong Il for many years. After Kim’s death, Fujimoto reappeared in Pyongyang meeting with the new leader in images he shared with Japanese media.
Fujimoto’s new restaurant in Pyongyang bears the name “Takahashi” outside its door. The main room with a sushi counter is very small, with just a handful of seats.
Raw fish dishes sushi and sashimi have been available in Pyongyang for many years, but usually the fish is frozen before it comes to the table, so the customer can chose either to crunch it frozen, or wait until it defrosts and loses its texture. Neither option meets the usual standards.
According to the latest images, the food at Fujimoto’s is much better. But prices are high by Pyongyang standards, starting at US$50 for a sushi set, and running to more than US$100.
There are also cheaper options available from the noodle restaurant that operates together with Fujimoto’s sushi room.
“I think everyone in the world is aware that North Korea has its challenges and economic difficulties,” Spavor said.
“That being said, there are many Koreans in Pyongyang who are able to afford these kind of high-end restaurants,” he said. “And keep in mind also that Pyongyang has a lot of foreign diplomats, U.N. workers, businessmen from China and other countries who can also dine at this restaurant.”