A decade after his escape from North Korea, Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef on Friday announced that he was travelling to North Korea, after accepting a personal invitation to return from Kim Jong-un. Following his departure from North Korea in 2001, Kenji Fujimoto gained notoriety thanks to four books in which he revealed many details about the late Dear Leader’s lifestyle, family, and current leader, Kim Jong Un. As a result of these books and his media appearances, his return to North Korea has raised more than a few eyebrows. Especially so when you consider that despite recent statements on “having not much to fear from this trip”, Fujimoto has since 2001 been living in hiding and had often claimed to fear for his life. What to make then of this sudden comeback?
At the press conference prior to his departure to Pyongyang, Fujimoto last week clarified that he saw nothing wrong in visiting the DPRK again, as this was a one-time invitation which would unlikely happen again in the future and for which he saw no reason to refuse. Fujimoto also specified that he has nothing to fear from this trip, claiming to have never badmouthed North Korea. Apparently he has also received personal guarantees from Kim Jong Un about his safety. But while he may have not made negative remarks about the regime and the Kim family directly, in the past he certainly exposed crude details about lavish parties, imported delicacies, a never ending stream of expensive liquors and the often regal lifestyle of the late Dear Leader.
Whether these stories are accurate or not we will never know, but it is safe to say that during the last ten years, part of the myth of Kim Jong Il being an eccentric, alcohol-loving dictator frolicking amidst millions of starving citizens was accentuated by books like the ones written by Fujimoto. Media love the stories in Fujimoto’s books, because they represented the best proof that everything they could have said and thought about Kim Jong Il being ruthlessly evil was true, and even worse.
Probably the political weight of these stories are not on par with some harsh remarks made by former U.S. President Bush (i.e.: “Kim Jong Il is a pygmy”), but they are certainly not something that can be appreciated by a North Korean leadership trying to portray the late Kim as a man who ate “whatever the troops were eating”, and was so hard-working that he died from exhaustion, on duty, during one of his countless trips throughout the country.
In addition to the tone and nature of the comments he has made since his return to Pyongyang, the circumstances surrounding Fujimoto’s departure from the DPRK add to difficulties understanding his motivation to return there now. After all, he shared 13 years of friendship (and lavish parties, horse riding, and even hunting trips) with Kim Jong Il, just to run away in 2001 with no apparent explanation.
The reality is that most people in his shoes would probably chose not to go back. As any good North Korean Citizen knows, for a member of the Korean Workers Party (as Fujimoto apparently was, having become a member in 1990), escaping from North Korea is considered a crime, punishable with forced labor and even death. Furthermore, Fujimoto didn’t just flee the country: he left behind a wife (a former pop singer) and two children. This too may have had some weight in his comeback decision and we should therefore hope that his family did not suffer any major negative consequences as a result of his departure.
Little is known about the real motivations that induced him to quit North Korea during his trip to Hokkaido in 2001. Japanese sources report that during a 1998 trip to Beijing he was suspected by the North Korean security service to have been in phone contact with a head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and to have consequently been put under house arrest upon his return to North Korea. Fearing that this arrest might eventually lead to imprisonment in a labor camp, Fujimoto may have concluded that he needed to run away.
Since his 2001 departure, Fujimoto has built a reputation as a ‘North Korea expert’ due to his inside stories; stories that, in his view, are so accurate and compromising that he has been fearing for his life ever since , constantly wearing a bandana and sunglasses to disguise his appearance. Futhermore, he claims to wear a bulletproof vest at all times, to protect himself from North Korean Agents who would track him down and kill him, if given the chance.
Given the optimism displayed during the last press conference, we can suppose that, despite his books and interviews, Fujimoto has somehow maintained a positive stand with the Kim family and especially Kim Jong Un, with whom the Japanese Chef claims to have spent plenty of time during his childhood and adolescence. A few doubts remain as to the reliability of his statements back then (and the stories narrated in his books) especially when paired with his latest declarations: it is hard to believe that North Korean Agents would hunt him down if he really had done nothing to upset or disappoint Kim Jong Il; at the same time, given his extensive writings it is not easy to fully embrace the optimism he has in returning to Pyongyang. The next days will tell us whether Fujimoto was right, and, who knows, we might very well see the publishing of a new book, dedicated, this time, to the young Marshall.
 This is not entirely accurate: Fujimoto has indeed stated in his books and interviews that Kim Jong Il could be quite harsh with his subordinates and even prone to cruelty; as for Kim Jong Un, Fujimoto revealed that he has an aggressive determination and an innate instinct for domination, just like his father and grandfather.
Picture by K. Takeshi
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