What do we know about Kim Jong Un? Very little. That makes this guy an expert.
By Anna Fifield | The Washington Post | Published: January 10, 2016
SAKU, JAPAN — Kenji Fujimoto came prepared with a page of handwritten notes about North Korea'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.
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 $1,000 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.
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.
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.
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.
Yuki Oda and Kim Min-jung contributed this report.