What do we know about North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un? Very little. That makes this guy an expert

January 11, 2016 6:27 am

 Kenji Fujimoto, right, a former sushi chef for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, with Kim Jong Un. Photo / Washington Post

Kenji Fujimoto came prepared with a page of handwritten notes
about ’s nuclear test the previous day. His conclusion: Kim
Jong Un’s top priority is to improve the economy, so he needed to
advertise his country’s technology to potential customers such as Iran.
This
kind of analysis is Fujimoto’s stock-in-trade these days. After all,
he’s one of the few non-Koreans to have ever met Kim, and one of an even
more select group that has talked to him since he became the leader of
North Korea four years ago.
Never mind that Fujimoto spent only
one boozy lunch with the “Great Successor” in 2012, or that most of the
time they spent together was in the 1990s, when Fujimoto served as sushi
chef to the current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Kenji Fujimoto, the former sushi chef for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, is one of the few people outside North Korea to have met the current leader. Photo / Washington Post
Kenji Fujimoto, the former sushi chef
for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, is one of the few people outside
North Korea to have met the current leader. Photo / Washington Post

So little is known about the third-generation leader of
North Korea that even this amount of contact qualifies Fujimoto for a
unique job: professional Kimjongunologist.
“There’s no one else
in Japan. I am the only one,” Fujimoto, who is 68 and uses a pseudonym,
said in an interview. “This is all secret, and I am revealing all my
secrets to the world. For that, I can be executed by firing squad
anytime.”
Fujimoto is the sole Japanese person known to have met
Kim. (The only Americans believed to have met him are basketball player
Dennis Rodman and his entourage). As such, Fujimoto has been in hot
demand. On one side of his business card is the cover of his latest
book, showing a photo of him hugging Kim Jong Un. The reverse: “Kim Jong
Il’s chef. Please call this number below if you want to talk.”
Japanese
television pays him $1000 a pop to appear on screen talking about the
North Korean leader, and newspapers – from Japan and around the world –
give him about half that, he said. (The Post declined Fujimoto’s request
for payment, instead conducting two interviews over lunch in a grimy
Chinese restaurant he frequents.)
Governments also pay him for
his insights, Fujimoto said, although he was hazy about the details.
South Korea? Same as television, he said. The United States? “Probably.”
U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008 released by Wikileaks said Japanese
government analysts had “closely studied” Fujimoto’s first book. But the
former chef denied rumors that Japanese authorities have paid him large
amounts of money over the years.

Buying caviar and cognac

Fujimoto is unique both in experience and in character.
Although
he says he fears for his life and wears a bulletproof vest when he
leaves this quiet town, he is instantly recognizable. In addition to his
unusual bandanna and purple-tinted glasses, he wears a
diamond-encrusted watch so flashy it would make a rapper blush, and he
drives a silver sports car in a place filled with sensible hatchbacks.
In
1982, with a young family and struggling to make ends meet, Fujimoto
responded to an advertisement seeking a sushi chef to work in North
Korea. Within a few years, he was preparing fish for Kim Jong Il and
became a “playmate” for Kim Jong Un, who Fujimoto says was born in 1983,
and his older brother.
Then followed years of adventure, he says
– jet-skiing and motorbiking with the “Dear Leader” and flying around
the world to buy caviar and cognac for him – as well as constant fear
that he would run afoul of the system and be killed for it.
After
he escaped from North Korea in 2001 during a run to Tokyo to buy sea
urchin, Fujimoto wrote a book called I Was Kim Jong Il’s Chef, which
became fodder for countless stories on the leader’s legendary gluttony.
Finding himself suddenly in demand, Fujimoto wrote two more books and
made frequent appearances on television.
Some people have doubted
his expertise, and many of his tales are not consistent: In an
interview Thursday, he denied that, while detained during one of his
shopping trips to Tokyo, the Japanese government had made him read books
about North Korea’s human rights abuses. Fujimoto had written about
such an incident in one of his books.

A banner shows a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as South Korean war veterans stage a rally against North Korea in Seoul. Photo / AP
A banner shows a picture of North
Korean leader Kim Jong Un as South Korean war veterans stage a rally
against North Korea in Seoul. Photo / AP
But he gained a lot of credibility when he predicted
that Kim Jong Un would be named heir to Kim Jong ll. The received wisdom
at the time was that Kim Jong Chol, the middle son, would inherit the
leadership of the communist nation.
When Kim Jong Un was anointed
in 2010, Fujimoto said, he was asked by people outside North Korea to
share his prior experiences with the new leader. He recounted how, as an
8-year-old, Kim had tried to burst in on him while he was on the
toilet, and how, when Kim was 17 and was back from school in
Switzerland, he borrowed the Japanese chef’s Whitney Houston CD.
The
whole time Fujimoto recycled these stories, though, he lived in fear of
being knocked off by a North Korean agent, he said. Then in 2012, while
he was at the store in this town northeast of Tokyo, he saw a tall man
he recognized as North Korean. “I thought: ‘They’ve finally come for
me,’ ” Fujimoto said.
But he met the man at a hotel and said he
received a note wrapped in red velvet: an invitation to visit Pyongyang.
The following month, another message: “Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un
wants you to fulfill your promise made in 2001.”
Fujimoto had vowed to go horse riding with Kim, who was apparently reminding him of it. So, Fujimoto went.
“When
the doors opened slowly, the first person I saw was Kim Jong Un, who
said ‘Long time, no see, Fujimoto-san,’ ” he said of the reunion. That’s
when he knew he was going to be fine, he said. As a child, Kim had
never used the Japanese honorific on Fujimoto’s name.

Fujimoto the betrayer

In
the interview, Fujimoto pulled out photos from that meeting with Kim.
One shows Fujimoto dabbing his nose with a handkerchief as he sits next
to Jang Song Taek, the uncle that Kim would have executed in 2013.
Another depicts Fujimoto wiping his eyes as he bows in front of Kim.
“I
said to Kim Jong Un in Korean: ‘I, Fujimoto the betrayer, have now come
back,’ and he said ‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’ as he tapped on my
shoulder,” Fujimoto recalled. “I cried so hard.”
He wrote a book
about this experience too, called “Broken Promise. A full confession to
the Comrade General.” That’s the one that features a photo of the two
hugging on the cover.
Across a table of shrimp, jellyfish and
pork dishes, Fujimoto started to cry as he told the story of their
meeting, which he said stretched over several hours and involved lots of
wine and soju, a Korean liquor. “I’m not sad. I’m happy talking about
my conversations with Kim Jong Un,” Fujimoto explained. “I have known
him since he was 7.”
It is surprising that Fujimoto still feels
so warmly about Kim and his regime, given that it sent Fujimoto’s North
Korean wife, once a famous singer, and their two children to a coal mine
for six years of hard labor after he fled in 2001. He met his wife and
daughter, now apparently rehabilitated and living in Pyongyang, during
his visit in 2012. But he was told that their healthy, 22-year-old son –
named Jong Un, which Fujimoto said was a coincidence – had died of a
heart attack a few weeks before his visit.
Nonetheless, Fujimoto
seems to view it as his calling to defend a regime that has few
defenders. He waves away questions about the government’s
well-documented brutalities and says he continues to write letters to
the “comrade general.” Still, Fujimoto has not been able to get another
visa to return to Pyongyang.
This could pose a problem for his
business model. He enjoys eating and drinking – he put away two bottles
of beer at each lunch – and often goes to hot springs while he waits for
reporters or intelligence services to call for fresh insights.
“The
weekly papers might call,” he said at lunch on Thursday, after more
than 24 hours without a call following the nuclear test.
Then he
got into his little silver car and headed off to write a letter to Kim
Jong Un wishing him a happy birthday. North Korea’s supreme leader
turned 33 on Friday.

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