TOKYO – It’s no easy matter for anyone to go in and out of a closed-off society like North Korea freely. And meeting with the nation’s new young leader Kim Jong Un is even more so.
But much to the disbelief of experts, one Japanese individual made it, as if it were something easy and simple.
At the invitation of Kim Jong Un, Kenji Fujimoto, 66, a pseudonym, visited Pyongyang for two weeks from July 21 to August 4. Fujimoto used to work for the late former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from 1989 to 2001 as his personal sushi chef. During his visit, Fujimoto met Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol-ju, as well as his younger sister Kim Yeo-jong and uncle Jang Song-taek in a welcome party for on July 22. He also met his remaining family in Pyongyang for the first time in 11 years, a wife and daughter.
His story of the rarest encounter with North Korea’s new young leader makes itself both unique and stupefying.
Fujimoto spoke about his recent visit to Pyongyang in a meeting held by a Japanese right-wing group called Issuikai on August 28, where this writer attended to report this.
“I have known the chairman of Issuikai for a long time,” Fujimoto said in his opening remarks. “It’s good to have friends at the right-wing group because they can stop any obstructions from other rightist groups.” He obscured himself with his trademark sunglasses and a bandanna around his head.
“I never want to hold a press conference” Fujimoto said. “This is because I make a living by accepting individual interviews with news organizations through charging a commission.”
But despite this wish, the meeting virtually became a press conference anyway, with many Japanese journalists packing out a conference room in a hotel in Tokyo.
In his book The North’s Successor, Kim Jong Un,Fujimoto wrote that he was Kim Jong Un’s favorite playmate in Pyongyang when Kim junior was aged between 7 and 18. Fujimoto wrote that he felt as if Kim Jong Un were his son when they were spending time together. Fujimoto has called him the “Taejang Doshi” in Korean, or “Comrade General” in English.
In April 2001, Fujimoto escaped North Korea by leaving his wife, son and daughter behind, because he felt at threat of being purged by North Korean authorities on suspicion of espionage for Japan.
But this June, one North Korean official, whom Fujimoto knew in Pyongyang, appeared in front of him suddenly near his house to say, “Your family members, plus one person, are waiting for you in Pyongyang. Please visit to the Republic(North Korea) as soon as possible.”
Fujimoto was reluctant to decide upon a potentially dangerous revisit to Pyongyang, because he has revealed much about the Kim Jong-il family by publishing four books, which is equal to a “Class A felony”, he said.
But in July, that man again approached Fujimoto by showing an official letter, which says “If you come to the Republic, I will guarantee your safety.” That man also said to Fujimoto, “A person who wrote this letter wants to fulfill a promise made in 2001.”
On March 31, 2001, right before Fujimoto headed for Japan with the pretext that he would buy tuna in Tsukiji of Tokyo, and escaped from Pyongyang, he hobnobbed together with Kim Jong Un.
Asked if he would ever come back to Pyongyang by Kim Jong Un, Fujimoto said, “Of course, I will!” to which Jong-eun replied, “Ok! Come back for sure!”
Fujimoto said that only the young leader would have known this promise made between them in 2001 and as such he was convinced Kim Jong Un himself wrote the letter, clear that he would be well protected on his first trip back to Pyongyang in 11 years.
Fujimoto met Kim Jong Un at noon sharp on July 22 at the beginning of a welcome party held in a banquet room in Pyongyang. Fujimoto said he rushed into his arms and said by crying, “A traitor as I am, I came back. I am very sorry. “
Kim Jong Un replied to him, “No worries, no worries,” according to Fujimoto.
Kim Jong Un also said, “I forgive everything about Fujimoto’s treacherous acts. But I remember the days we played together a lot. Horse riding, roller blade, jet-skiing, basketball, tennis, shooting, etc. Thank you so much for playing with me in my childhood.”
During the reception party, a North Korean female translator nicknamed Sakura read out Fujimoto’s letter written to Kim Jong Un. The letter called for the overcoming of the long-standing abduction issue of Japanese by North Korean agents to make a breakthrough in North Korean relations with Japan. Fujimoto said he did not use the word “abduction” but instead used the expression “the issue of Yokota Megumi-san and others.” Fujimoto said Kim Jong Un listened to his letter while nodding his head.
Megumi Yokota, at the age of 13, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1977. The abducted Japanese nationals, including her, are believed to have been forced to teach Japanese language and culture to North Korean intelligence agents for covert operations against South Korea.
Moving on to other issues, Fujimoto said the average monthly salary of workers in Pyongyang is now about 3,000 Korean won. Meanwhile, going to a beef barbecue restaurant costs 7,000 won and a cell phone costs USD250. Despite such high prices relative to the salary, barbecue restaurants are full of people, and many Pyongyang citizens carry a cell phone. Fujimoto said people may earn a lot of money in the free market.
He also said that his son died in Pyongyang suddenly at the age of 22, just two weeks before he visited Pyongyang. While there is speculation that because Fujimoto escaped from North Korea by betraying it his son was forced to sacrifice his life for Fujimoto’s return to Pyongyang, Fujimoto denied this view. He said his son died of illness suddenly.
Japan and North Korea started holding their first talks in four years on August 29. The new focus is on whether the North will agree to discuss its abductions of Japanese citizens. Japanese experts on North Korean affairs see Pyongyang’s efforts to warm relations with Tokyo as evidence that Kim Jong Un is well-versed in his father’s tactic of exploiting diplomatic divides among adversaries such as Japan and South Korea.
Question: Is notKim Jong Un actually pro-Japanese? Is he just pretending to be anti-Japanese for the sake of appearance? If so, doesn’t this become a good reason to have better relations with North Korea?
Fujimoto: Yes, I think so too. His mother is a returnee from Japan. Of course, no children hate the second hometown of their mother.
Question: Did the Japanese government ask you to deliver some message to Pyongyang before your departure?
Fujimoto: No. There was no contact with the Japanese government.
Question: Does Kim Jong Un know if there are starving children in North Korea?
Fujimoto: This time, I could only see Pyongyang, where enough food exists for everybody surely. Some documentary films only present starving children in North Korea, but in every country there are children who are not given enough food. In this age of rapid communication, I think he apparently is concerned about those children.
Question: Did you give an advance notice about your letter on Yokota Megumi-san?
Fujimoto: Yes, I had submitted my letter to the head of the secretarial office. He wondered by saying, “Is Yokota Megumi-san (A Japanese national abducted by DPRK) still alive?” But I assume the secretarial office does not know details of this issue. The organization is quite different from those which conducted the operation. These words still bug me.
Question: Do you want to be a messenger between Japan and North Korea?
Fujimoto: Yes. If the Japanese government asks me to deliver any message, I will do so. I am 200% confident to be able to deliver it to supreme commander Kim Jong Un Doshi(=Comrade). But government officials may feel bad if they ask a private person to do so.
Question: Did the sudden removal of Ri Yong-ho from chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) become a topic of conversation?
Fujimoto: Not at all. No political topic was talked. But I had my letter on Yokota Megumi-san and others read out. I may have gone too far by doing so.
Question: Why do you think NK is reaching out to you personally at this time, and Japan in general?
Fujimoto: I hate to be so inquisitive about it. He just wanted to see me and he sent me a messenger. On July 18, I was asked to come to a hotel. There the messenger said to me, “Fujimoto-san, let’s fulfill the 2001 promise.” Then, for the first time, I could see Kim Jong Un Doshi(=Comrade)’s existence behind the curtain. On the right spot, I said, “I will go to the Republic. I will return to the Republic.” Soon after, my remaining family in Pyongyang could move from a small two-room house to the 5LDK house of a gorgeous mansion in a prime location of Pyongyang.
Question: Will you visit to Pyongyang again? How long will you be staying next time?
Fujimoto: I plan to visit at the end of September. I am not sure how long I will be staying. I may stay with my family until the New Year celebration, or during my staying Kim Jong Un Doshi may ask me to do something. So, I cannot clearly say it. I now plan to live on Pyongyang as a main place, but I want to go in and out of Japan. I need to cherish my remaining family in Pyongyang, whom I left behind for 11 years. My wife is suffering from pancreatic cancer. So, I am not sure when she will die. I have to be present at her deathbed.
Question: Will North Korea achieve the Chinese style policy of reforming and opening up the economy? If so, will that help weaken Kim family’s three-generation dynasty?
Fujimoto: Yes, Kim Jong Un Doshi eyes the Chinese style economic policy. I don’t think this will contradict the current regime. He has a strong gut and he will do it.
Question: There is speculation that Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Song-thaek are making most of the decisions and that only a few of Kim Jong Un’s policy recommendations are adopted. Is this true?
Fujimoto: No. That’s not true. Jong-eun Taejang(=General) is doing it by himself.
Question: Does Kim Jong Un have kids?
Fujimoto: No. He does not have.
Question: If you are on good terms with North Korea, why do you keep using the pseudonym and stay in hiding?
Fujimoto: Kenji Fujimoto is my most favorite name, so I will keep using it.
Question: Did you see Kim Jong-chol on your trip?
Fujimoto: No. He was not present at the party. He has a very quiet character, so I firmly deny the view that he will form some faction to rebel against his younger brother. He will support his younger brother.
Question: Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong is said to be in charge of the nation’s propaganda efforts. Is this true?
Fujimoto: No. She is a shrew-like woman. She is a free-spirited tomboy. She cannot proceed with any work related to small details. She was jumping behind his brother when the TV camera was shooting him.
Question: Are you in email contact with anyone in North Korea now?
Fujimoto: No. I cannot use emails to contact people in North Korea. In North Korea emails are only usable domestically.
TOKYO – It’s no easy matter for anyone to go in and out of a closed-off society like North Korea freely. And meeting with the nation’s new young leader Kim Jong Un is even more so.But much to the disbelief of experts, one Japanese individual made it, as if it were something easy and simple.At the invitation of Kim Jong Un, Kenji Fujimoto, 66, a pseudonym, visited Pyongyang for two
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times, Jane's Defence Weekly and The Diplomat, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke