Editor's Note: Rocket science and sushi do mix, apparently. This Dec. 7 GlobalPost story featured a Japanese sushi chef who once worked for Kim Jong Il, and who knows the Pyongyang power players' tastes in raw fish. Kenji Fujimoto also accurately predicted North Korea's rocket launch, which happened Dec. 12. Sushi diplomacy, anyone?
TOKYO, Japan — North Korea is hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to promoting itself as a workers' paradise. But the state's impressive propaganda machine aside, the information void has been largely filled by dissidents and the few outsiders to have gained access to the elite circle that runs the Hermit Kingdom.
The most unlikely member of that group is Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef, who has succeeded in shedding light on the secretive regime where seasoned North Korea hands have failed.
Fujimoto, who worked for Kim Jong Il from 1988 to 2001 before fleeing to Japan, is now promoting his latest memoirs of his relationship with the communist dynasty. Some dismiss him as an eccentric who, unwittingly perhaps, has become the North's unofficial spokesman in Japan, with his descriptions of "happy" Pyongyang residents filled with respect for their country's leadership.
But perhaps we should take him more seriously: after all, he used his knowledge of the family to predict the rise of current leader Kim Jong Un, a man many had thought too young for the role.
Now Fujimoto says Kim Jong Un will defy international opinion and push ahead with a rocket launch planned for this month because he wants to honor the memory of his father, Kim Jong Il, who died last December.
He said Kim Jong Un had limited enthusiasm for his country’s rocket program but believed the launch was an appropriate way to pay his respects to the late dictator.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Fujimoto said he believed the launch would take place on Dec. 17, exactly a year after Kim Sr. died of a heart attack.
North Korea has said the rocket launch, which many believe is really designed to test the country’s ballistic missile technology, will happen between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22.
NATO this week voiced “grave concern” over the move, while the United Nations says it would be a violation of international sanctions.
“I know something of Kim’s heart and soul, and came to the conclusion that he is not taking an assertive role in the [rocket] program, but it seems he wants to use it to commemorate his father’s death, even though it’s very costly,” Fujimoto said.
While the regime appears to have forgiven him for fleeing to Japan in 2001 while on a trip to buy food, Fujimoto still fears for his safety and disguises himself with a bandanna and sunglasses during media appearances.
In July, he traveled to Pyongyang, where he met the young leader and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and was reportedly reunited with his North Korean wife, son and daughter.
“A North Korean go-between had approached me in Japan and told me my family wanted to see me,” Fujimoto said. “When he showed me their photos and letters, I couldn’t stop crying. Then he told me there was someone else who very much wanted to see me. That person was Kim Jong Un.”
Fujimoto has become one of Japan’s most dependable sources of information about the reclusive Kim dynasty. But after 13 years cooking for the Kims, the 65-year-old sushi chef, who goes by a pseudonym, feared he was being spied on and fled.
In his 2003 book, "I Was Kim Jong Il’s Chef," Fujimoto recalled his first meeting with Kim Jong Un, then age 7. The boy "resembled his father in every way, including his physical frame", he wrote. "He glared at me with a menacing look when we shook hands. I can never forget the look in his eyes, which seemed to be saying, 'This is one despicable Japanese guy.'"
But during their recent meeting, Fujimoto said he was “amazed to see how this person I had known as a child had grown up into an impressive adult. I came away with the impression that this was a man who can change North Korea little by little. He has the will and ability to tackle its many problems.”
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Fujimoto was able to answer a question that has puzzled observers since Kim Jong Un was first talked about as a possible successor: his age. According to the chef, he was born on Jan. 8, 1983, making him 29.
There is no way to verify Fujimoto’s observations about Kim’s personality and thinking, but he gained credibility several years ago when he correctly predicted that he would be chosen over his older brothers to become the regime’s next leader.
Fujimoto also claimed to know something of Kim Jong Un’s attitude toward the rest of the world. “It’s only natural that he’s very concerned about his international image, and he is aware that North Korea is viewed as aggressive,” he said. “But I believe his wish is for North Korea to improve its image.
“On the surface it seems like North Korea is adopting an adversarial stance towards the US, South Korea and Japan, but I sensed a desire to move closer to these nations.”