TOKYO – For two years the world has been struggling to understand the true character of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un.
While the repercussions from the brutal execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek are still being felt at home and abroad, a jovial Kim was seen at a his birthday celebrations last week, greeted by Dennis Rodman.
In an extensive interview with NK News, Kenji Fujimoto, a personal chef that served Kim Jong Il for 13 years, said even in basketball games the teenage Kim knew how to use both carrots and sticks — reprimanding and extolling fellow players as the situation warranted.
As a diehard basketball fan, Kim Jong Un always wore the jerseys bearing the numbers of Rodman or Michael Jordan, the chef said.
Fujimoto said there were limits to how much of the Kim family life he was able to witness, particularly whether or how Kim Jong Il’s children were disciplined. Nor did he see much of how North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, in his late 70s by the time Fujimoto arrived, interacted with his grandchildren prior to his death in 1994.
But Fujimoto said Km Jong Un was aware of the starvation and social hardships on the streets in his teens and cared about the huge gap between his own country and other developed countries.
NK News: Foreign media are very curious about Kim Jong Un’s character. You knew him during his formative years, from ages 7 to 18. Were there any characteristics that stuck out during that period of his life?
Fujimoto: The thing that sticks out is his 7th birthday. At that time, none of the elites knew about the existence of Shogun (the Japanese term for “military commander”) Kim Jong Il’s children. I was at the Sinchon guesthouse during lunch. After all the elites were finished with their meals they were all conversing. I heard a car door shut outside. I heard that Shogun Kim Jong Il was coming later that day. Eventually, Shogun Kim Jong Il found me and told me that they would introduce their sons that day. So I went out to the hall, right by the corner of the billiards table. The two sons (Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chol) were standing there in military clothes. And behind them stood Ms. Ko Yong Hui (Kim Jong Un’s mother). As soon as the two sons saw the shogun, they immediately saluted. It was so strange, seeing little children saluting in military garb. They were so small then. Of course they quickly grew taller than me, but at the time they were aged 7 and 9.
“He seemed to think of me like, “So you are the Imperial Japanese trash!”
During the handshaking ceremony, I was the lowest person there (in the social hierarchy), so I was at the very back of the line. My heart was pounding when I got closer, and there were only around 10 people ahead of me. After it got to about five people, I felt more relaxed. I was going to shake their hand!
They were wearing military clothes. Would I be shot? (laughter) Gen. Jong Chol was first, as he is the eldest. I shook his hand. I gripped his hand a little and he gripped back. And then I got to Gen. Jong Un. He was glaring up at me. He seemed to think of me like, “So you are the Imperial Japanese trash!” So the first impression when meeting him was quite bad.
NK News: You were over 40 at that point, right?
Fujimoto: Yes. So, the shogun told Mr. Kim Jong Un, “This is Fujimoto-san.” He reluctantly offered his hand. I’ll never forget his eyes. I gave his hand a little grip like with his older brother Jong Chol. He gave me his hand limply. That was it. I thanked him. Of course, both of the princes had had my sushi sans wasabi. I’d given the sushi to their driver to have it delivered many times. So they knew about a Japanese chef named Fujimoto that made the sushi. They had heard the name.
“They knew about a Japanese chef named Fujimoto that made the sushi”
It was after that that he opened his heart to me. It was maybe a week or 10 days later. Shogun Kim Jong Il’s driver came to get me. I rode with him to the shogun’s palace at the Sinchon guesthouse. I wasn’t his playmate yet, that was later. So I went in the car to the yard. There were 10 or so elites there. The shogun, Ms. Ko Yong Hui, movie technicians, drivers, butlers. They were trying to put up a kite. They asked me to help them raise the kite. They said they’d been trying but it wouldn’t fly.
So I took a look and it was the kind with no streamers. Up in Yamagata Prefecture there are kites like those, but those kinds of kites are extremely difficult to fly. So I told them to get me paper, glue, tape and scissors. I put it together in five minutes. The one holding the kite was Gen. Kim Jong Un, who had glared at me. I had a translator, but I told him to let it go when I gave him to say so. I checked the wind and got it ready and told him to let go. It went straight up, high over the Sinchon guesthouse.
That was when he opened his heart to me. He was so happy about it. Ms. Ko Yong Hui also said, “Isn’t that nice, Jong Un? If it wasn’t for Fujimoto-san the kite wouldn’t have flown.” He said, “Yeah!” I think that’s when he opened his heart to me. A few days after that, the shogun asked me if I would be the children’s playmate. There was no way I could say no. And I told him I’d teach them lots of Japanese games.
NK News: So is it true that he likes basketball a lot?
Fujimoto: Yes. Because Shogun Kim Jong Il is rather short, he wanted his children to be taller. There was a basketball court at the Wonsan guesthouse, just for their children. If they played a little ball they might be taller, he thought.
NK News: Do Rodman’s visits therefore make sense?
Fujimoto: (Jong Un) was always wearing the No. 10 jersey (the number Rodman wore when he played for the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs).
NK News: How about Michael Jordan?
Fujimoto: Of course. He’d always wear (Jordan or Rodman’s jerseys). He liked them so much.
NK News: Regarding his birthday: according to your book Kim Jong Un was born on January 8, 1983. However, North Korea’s official records say the birth year is 1982. On the other hand, South Korean intelligence concluded Kim’s birth year was 1984. Are you sure about 1983?
Fujimoto: Definitely. For birthdays we always had to write cards. Gen. Jong Chol’s birthday is September 25. (Kim Jong Un’s sister) Princess Yo Jong’s birthday is September 26. They were one day apart. So we’d write them a card around the same time. And Gen. Jong Un’s birthday is January 8. I had to write cards, so of course I know his birthday.
NK News: How was discipline inside the family?
Fujimoto: Fujimoto: I always get asked this. But, we were never able to look into the private lives of the family. Just sometimes I saw Madam Ko Yong Hui teaching her children Chinese characters. One day, Prince Jong Un came up to ask me about a character. I told him “yes, which one do you need?” He asked me how to write ‘Wave.’ I think they were practicing dictations with characters about ocean words such as Blue, Sea, Sky. They were using Japanese brand practice books called Kokuyo. Chongryon in Japan probably sent them over! I’d see and hear her saying to her son, “No, no, you have to think on your own!”
NK News: The grandfather Kim Il Sung. Did he have much interaction with his grandchildren?
Fujimoto: I suppose.
NK News: You weren’t there when he was alive?
Fujimoto: I was there. But I didn’t really see anything really.
NK News: Did Kim Jong Un see the starvation and hardship among his people? Did he see the gap between his life and the poor peoples’ lives?
Fujimoto: During a five-hour conversation on the train we once talked about this. He’d seen Europe and Japan. He’d see supermarkets and department stores. He had been to Tokyo Disneyland as well. So he’d seen these things when he was very young.
“He’d seen Japanese supermarkets with mountains of products. Then he returned home and saw there was nothing”
While he was very young with his hands being held by parents, of course these things hadn’t sunk in yet. But as he got older he saw the world with his own eyes. He’d seen Japanese supermarkets with mountains of products. Then he returned home and saw there was nothing.
He said, “Fujimoto, we have to imitate the Chinese reforms (of the late 1970s).”
I thought, “This man will head toward reform. He knows that there must be change.”
NK News: You have written in your books that Kim Jong Un has a lot of leadership skills
Fujimoto: This is true. Everyone was watching his basketball games. Shogun Kim Jong Il, (Kim Jong Un’s) mother, all the elites. Until the basketball game was over and everyone left the court, they would be watching from above. Watching how Prince Jong Un and Prince Jong Chol act. Prince Jong Chol would always gather his team under the net. He’d say, “Good work everyone. Now dismiss.”
However, Prince Jong Un, he’d get very angry.
“What kind of pass was that? A pass like that would never help us score us a basket!” I’d be waiting for him off to the side of the court. After getting mad at his team he’d come over, smile and say, “I wonder if he’ll recover from that (outburst)!” I told him, “When someone makes a mistake you have to get angry or they won’t improve.”
NK News: Was Kim Jong Un really good at basketball?
Fujimoto: One time Prince Jong Un told me before a game I was reffing, “If the princes’ team fouls you have to call it. Keep it fair.” That day the princes’ team was winning by one point. The clock had two minutes left. If they kept it up, the princes’ team would have won. But their team fouled the opponents and gave them two free-throw chances.
They made both. The last two minutes went by quickly and the princes ended up losing by one point. At the award ceremony, the shogun and madam would give all the participants a commemorative item. After they left the court, Prince Jong Chol was so angry with me. “We lost because you blew the whistle!” he said. On the other hand, Prince Jong Un came over and said, “Well, of course you’d lose if you fouled at a point in the game like that!” Their ways of thinking were so different. Prince Jong Un thought that they lost because they fouled. Prince Jong Chol though they lost because I blew a whistle on their foul.
NK News. What are the differences you perceive between the Kim Jong Un of those days and now?
Fujimoto: So I saw him for the first time in a long time two years ago. From the beginning I was aware that he was going to be the heir. I felt like he truly cared about the country.
NK News: South Korea is worried about regime change in North Korea.
Fujimoto: South Korea is the country most in danger of being attacked by the North.
Bombardments like Yeonpyeong Island (in late 2010) come to mind…I was drinking in a pub when the bombardment of Yeongpyeong happened. I closed out my bill and went home to write a letter. I heard the USS George Washington was heading to the area.
I wrote, “Shogun, it’s been decided that the George Washington is heading to the Yeongpyeong area. This time, you cannot fire a single shot. The Americans are waiting for that. It would be all-out war.”
Did the North fire a single shot (when the Washington approached)? No.
NK News: Weren’t you afraid of sending a letter to the shogun?
Fujimoto: My letters reached there. When I went back to North Korea two years ago the press officer thanked me, (saying) that the elites all read my letter.
NK News: You went back in the summer of 2012. Was the Japanese government counting on you at all to push relations forward?
Fujimoto: When it was decided that I’d go, they didn’t contact me. I was so frustrated about this. After I came back, they realized I was the real deal, that Fujimoto could meet the North Korean leader. After that the Japanese minister in charge of abduction issues contacted me.
Why didn’t they contact me before? Why didn’t they give me a letter to deliver? Actually, there was a movement to use me as an intermediary, but the foreign ministry blocked it. So stupid. They were afraid of pursuing dual diplomacy.
If they had given me official documents, Mr. Kim Jong Un would have definitely gotten hold of the letter. He would feel that action was needed. He’d be drawn in. I promised him that I would return to Pyongyang on September 1, 2012.
“He had nothing. I was shocked. I turned pale”
So then the minister (on the abductions issue) contacted me. At first, it was getting near September 1. He asked me to push the return back by one week. I said no. I promised Mr. Kim Jong Un that I would return on the 1st. He pressed me and bowed deeply. He talked about (then-) Prime Minister (Yoshihiko) Noda who couldn’t write a letter to Pyongyang since the Diet was in session. I couldn’t say no to a Japanese minister pleading with me.
I told him okay. But I said, “You’re going to make me a liar again.”
Anyway, I waited for a week. Then I saw him again. He was empty-handed. No briefcase or envelope. He had nothing. I was shocked. I turned pale. The minister turned out his aides. He apologized profusely that Prime Minister Noda was not able to write a letter. I was so furious. You made me a liar and you come empty-handed! “Give me back my time,” I told him.
NK News: So whose fault was it? Prime Minister Noda’s?
Fujimoto: It’s the Foreign Ministry’s fault. What kind of Prime Minister bows to the Foreign Ministry? Is the government run by the Foreign Ministry?
NK News: So do you have any plans to return to North Korea? Are you going to approach them or are you waiting for them?
Fujimoto: Well, it’d be hard to approach them now. I’ll wait till it gets quieter.
Interview conducted by Kosuke Takahashi & Ryo C. Kato for NK News, Tokyo January 2014
Main picture: K. Takahashi
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