TOKYO – A chef who served the very top of the Pyongyang elite thinks Kim Jong Un may soon face challengers intent on usurping his power.
Speculation among North Korea watchers has been even more rampant than usual since the very public ouster of Jang Song Thaek in December, with experts trying to figure out what’s going on inside the world’s most reclusive regime and what may come next.
Jang, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who had served as the nation’s No. 2 official, was suddenly executed for treason last month. Kim Kyong Hui, his wife and the blood aunt of Kim Jong Un, has also made no public appearances for months, with some media even speculating that she has already died of a heart attack or suicide.
Do the latest developments suggest Kim Jong Un is succeeding at consolidating his political power right now? Or is this just a manifestation of his struggles in doing so amid a mounting crisis over his power base?
One person who knows very well about North Korea’s inner circle, including the Kim family dynasty and the convoluted machinations in Pyongyang, is Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym).
Fujimoto was employed by the late former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il from 1989 to 2001 as his personal sushi chef, and he still refers to Kim Jong Il as “shogun” (“military commander” in Japanese). He visited Pyongyang in the summer of 2012 at the invitation of Kim Jong Un, stunning Pyongyang watchers and intelligence communities worldwide. While working for Kim Jong Il, the 40-to-50-something Fujimoto became Kim Jong Un’s favorite playmate in Pyongyang, even though during the period the junior Kim was only about 7-18 years old.
In his book, The North’s Successor, Kim Jong Un, Fujimoto wrote that he felt as if Kim Jong Un were his own son because they had spent so much time together.
In an exclusive interview with NK News held in Tokyo on January 9, Fujimoto made several noteworthy statements, despite his wife and daughter still being in Pyongyang, and thus vulnerable to reprisals from the Pyongyang government.
For one, Fujimoto said there is a high possibility of coup d’état or insurgency by the military following the Jang purge because the Kim family’s nepotistic power-grabbing is weakening in the absence of key family members.
Fujimoto also said that Jang may have been purged due to problems with women, even though the official reasons were treason and financial crimes. He said Jang had been in charge of Kippumjo, or young girls selected to provide pleasure and entertainment to high-ranking Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) officials. And because Kim Jong Un despises womanizing of this sort, Fujimoto believes he had him executed.
Interview conducted by Kosuke Takahashi and Ryo C. Kato. All pictures copyright NK News
JANG SONG THAEK’S EXECUTION
NK News: Jang Song Thaek, who was seen as Kim Jong Un’s guardian, was purged and executed in December. What do you think about his execution?
Kenji Fujimoto: He was accused of being “despicable human scum, worse than a dog.” He must have angered Gen. Kim Jong Un to that extent.
Now, I know I should not make such negative conjectures, but let’s not forget that during Shogun Kim Jong Il’s era, Mr. Jang Song Thaek had a side job of being in charge of Kippumjo – the Pleasure Brigade.
A net was placed over the entire country to look for girls that would shine, “if only they were polished.” In this way, Mr. Jang received files on many beautiful young girls who had potential to be good singers and dancers, in some cases receiving as many as 100 girls’ files at a time.
These files would be inspected by Mr. Jang and after about 10 girls would be chosen to be presented to Shogun Kim Jong Il. Then they would decide when the subsequent interviews would be conducted. I’ve attended these interviews before as well, which used to be conducted at the Mokrankwan (or Mulan Hall), or a guest palace in Pyongyang.
During the interviews the 10 girls would be up on the stage. Shogun Kim Jong Il would have documents with all their birthplaces and so on, and he would ask questions here and there. If they were singers, they would sing right there. There would be separate auditions for dancers. The panel would ask them to raise their legs and all that.
NK News: How old were the girls?
KF: Usually 15 or 16. They were young because they retire when they’re 28 – dancers can’t go much more than that, since they damage their hips and backs. It’s amazing what they did.
NK News: So Jang Song Thaek had an image as an economic reform expert, but…
KF: Aside from that he was also assigned to this job maintaining Shogun Kim Jong Il’s Pleasure Brigade, you know, for the leaders’ pleasure.
“He loathes having relations with multiple women. And that’s why he conducted such a terrible execution”
Of the 10 girls (that would make it to Pyongyang), most of them were from the countryside. For some of them it would be their first time in Pyongyang. And (Jang Song Thaek) would say to each one, if you want to go to the Mokrankwan…if you want to make it in Pyongyang as a singer and get to the interview stage…Well, it’s like in Japan…You know how they say: “So what’ll it be? Come stay the night with me.”
NK News: So Jang was like a manager or a president at a talent agency?
KF: Right, it’s just like in Japan! Here there are guys that’ll take them all. So it was that kind of custom. But this is something that Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un hates the most. He loathes having relations with multiple women. And that’s why he conducted such a terrible execution.
NK News: So it was because of women?
KF: Exactly. He hates that kind of thing the most. His grandfather Kim Il Sung did similar things. His father also had quite a history with women. So having seen them, he wanted to prove that he’s different and that he would eradicate such practices. Basically, I think this was what the execution was about. So, regarding Mr. Jang Song Thaek, he did what the Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un hates the most: he had relations with multiple women. Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un could not forgive this, so he executed Mr. Jang Song Thaek, his caretaker and guardian.
To forget Mr. Jang as quickly as possible he executed him immediately after his trial. Ninety rounds from a machine gun. There’s no need to fire 90 rounds. I mean…aim for the head and aim for the heart and that’s that. Executions can be as simple as that. He truly was enraged. Ninety rounds from a machine gun. Then a flamethrower.
NK News: Jang Song Thaek’s poor reputation with women was known from a while back, right? If so, then why did this happen now?
KF: The rumor spread among the central committee elites. Back then (Kim Jong Un) was still young. But he’s married now and has children. I mean, North Korea is a country that hates to debase its public moral values, especially through that kind of immoral behavior. So it ignited Kim’s rage.
NK News: There has been press [at the time of interview] about hungry dogs, from media from Hong Kong. I don’t know if that’s true or not but…
KF: Even if that’s true, it proves the point even more.
The important thing is this: That he wanted to rid Mr. Jang Song Thaek from the Republic – I don’t say North Korea, I say “the Republic”… He wanted to ensure that Jang left no footprint in the Republic, to make it seem he never existed in the Republic. I like to stress these three points, because by doing so Jang could be forgotten.
So, of course, now Mr. Kim Jong Un is alone, and when he is alone, he sheds tears…
NK News: In your book you said Jang Song Thaek supported Kim Jong Il as his closest confidant. You also said that you expected this role would continue during the Kim Jong Un era. Given that he was the closest advisor among even the closest advisors, was the decision to cut off Jang Song Thaek therefore not quite a bold decision?
KF: Yes, because Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un was truly enraged.
NK News: You said in one of your books that Jang was a very diligent man and at times there could be friction between him and Kim Jong Il.
KF: That has nothing to do with this. All this and that about a coup d’état (in official media), that has nothing to do with anything. I mean, what are you going to do by staging a coup and grabbing power? If you sit behind Kim Jong Un, you can eat well…especially if you were his caretaker!
(A coup attempt) has nothing to do with it. But that kind of label is necessary for executions. “Treason,” “grand treason;” they wrote all sorts of things, even that he was taking drugs. How stupid, “drugs.” Everyone would know if someone was using drugs. Nonsense! Those labels are just necessary for these kinds of things.
NK News: To solidify Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy or authority…?
KF: (It had) nothing to do with that. The execution was only about Jang’s relations with women.
NK News: But according to analysis by South Korean intelligence, this recent purge and execution was related to disagreements over coal mining business.
KF: It had absolutely nothing to do with politics.
NK News: In the lead up to Jang Song Thaek’s execution, two of his close confidants – Ri Yong Ha and Jang Soo Kil – were also publicly executed.
KF: Jang Soo Kil is… his brother, right? He was the ambassador. He was called back and executed. If they executed the Jang group, they’d run away! They’d reveal it somehow and everyone (close to Jang) will escape.
A FAMILY POWER STRUGGLE?
NK News: In your latest book you wrote that you wanted Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong to read the book, in addition to Kim Jong Un himself. However, I note that Kim Jong Un’s brother Jong Chol does not appear in the book by name. Was there a reason for his exclusion?
KF: He was not at the party (that Fujimoto attended in Pyongyang in summer 2012). I was not in a position to ask Gen. Kim Jong Un if Comrade Gen. Jong Chol Daejang was present there or not. I can’t do that!
He had a reason for not being at the party and because I could not ask why he was not there, I could not include his name in the book.
NK News: I thought that you had written that you wanted Kim Yo Jong to read the book because she was being promoted. It’s not like that, though?
KF: No. It’s not like that.
NK News: So the recent power struggle in Pyongyang is nothing to do with a possible power struggle among two brothers and a sister in the Kim family?
KF: It has nothing to do with it. His big brother Jong Chol is not involved in that kind of thing.
NK News: How was it decided that Kim Jong Un would be leader over Jong Chol?
KF: Shogun Kim Jong Il decided that the siblings would never fight for power.
As I wrote in one of the books, I once had a five-hour conversation with Mr. Kim Jong Un on a special train.
A week or so before that at the Wonsan guesthouse I strongly suspect that Shogun Kim Jong Il and his wife Ms. Ko Yong Hui sat side-by-side with their two sons sit in front.
Shogun Kim Jong Il probably asked Gen. Jong Chol, “Do you have any interest in being heir?” Presumably, Gen. Jong Chol said no. Then they told him, “I see, if not we will have your brother Jong Un as heir. Is that fine?”
“Yes,” he would have answered. They cannot be allowed to fight and (Kim Jong Il) set that straight.
NK News: Did that happen in 2001, before you escaped?
KF: Yes, before I escaped.
After that conversation, when Gen. Comrade Jong Un came into my room on the train, his face looked so serious. I could tell something had happened.
“It was then that Gen. Jong Un was made aware that he would be heir instead of Gen. Comrade Jong Chol”
Usually, he’d come in saying, “Fujimoto. Cigarette.” That time, no mention of a cigarette.
As if deep in thought. I asked, “Gen. Jong Un, is there something you want to talk about?” He probably wanted to talk about it, but couldn’t.
At that point, though the heir had not been announced, it was then that Gen. Jong Un was made aware that he would be heir instead of Gen. Comrade Jong Chol. This was established from a young age to ensure that a power struggle wouldn’t later arise.
Gen. Jong Chol is not the kind of person to recreate a story and position himself to take power by establishing some faction.
NK News: Some people say that Kim Jong Un’s transition to power was difficult due to his short grooming period. But you are suggesting Kim was actually getting ready for leadership from 2001, that he was cognizant of his destiny for all that time?
KF: Yes. But it’s tough from here onwards for him.
This is my final thought: His blood relatives are thinning out, there is only his older brother Prince Jong Chol and his sister Princess Yo Jong. Now there are only the three of them. How are they going to protect the Kim court?
“It’s tough from here onwards for him…I see a very high possibility of a coup d’état”
It’d be easy to tip them over, especially now that Mr. Jang Song Thaek is gone. Mr. Choe Ryong Hae is only there to manage the military. They used to have Mr. Jang and Mr. Choe, glaring at the elites to keep the military in line. Now they have only the one. I’m sure Mr. Choe has many subordinates. But it’ll be difficult for Gen. Jong Un to keep control now.
NK News: Do you see any possibilities of coup d’état?
KF: Yes, I see a very high possibility of that. And insurgencies. There will definitely be cases of power struggles.
NK News: So Kim Jong Un must control the military, correct?
KF: He must control it. The Central Committee only has a pen as a weapon. The military has the actual weapons. The victor in that fight is plain to see.
NK News: Is it okay for you to say such things? I mean you still have a wife and daughter over there in Pyongyang.
KF: Yes, it is scary (laughs).
NK News: Wouldn’t Kim Jong Un get angry? Talking about coups?
KF: “Fujimoto, are you promoting a coup?” he’d say. But seriously, I am worried for him.
NK News: Another topic. It seems that Choe Ryong Hae – a former subordinate of Jang Song Thaek – has received quite the vote of confidence from Kim Jong Un. He is now a rising star, and rumor has it was he that pushed Jang Song Thaek out. Do you think it is anything like that?
KF: It is unthinkable for Mr. Choe Ryong Hae and Mr. Jang Song Thaek to fight, because Mr. Jang saved Mr. Choe’s life.
From 1988 to 1989, Mr. Choe Ryong Hae was building a bowling lane and received a lot of money from the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans in Japan) community. He also received a bribe. But you know that money really changes people? It is said that Choe was hiding between $100,000 – $150,000. He hid that money at the bottom of a rice bin.
But in 1988 there had been an order in Pyongyang to purge anyone found to be corrupt, even in the highest circles. So eventually Mr. Choe Ryong Hae was found out.
“Mr. Jang saved Mr. Choe’s life”
Even though his father Choe Hyon is a hero of the first degree, there were even rumors that he (urinated) on his father’s grave. It was such a widespread rumor that there was no one who didn’t know. So soon Mr. Choe Ryong Hae was exiled.
Personally, I think exile is a heavy punishment. One does not get any food rations. But a man has to eat, so he one must catch mice, moles and snakes to survive.
NK News: So when one someone is put in exile, they are taken away up to the mountains?
KF: Yes, apparently, it’s something like that. Well, I wrote in one of my books, that Mr. Jang Song Thaek once promised to save Mr. Choe Ryong Hae. And after that, in just four or five years, Choe was acquitted. I am sure it was because Mr. Jang had an “in” with Shogun Kim Jong Il.
NK News: Did you ever meet with Choe Ryong Hae?
KF: Yes, he’d be there at the parties.
NK News: What kind of person was he?
KF: He is about my height, with fierce eyes.
NK News: A very loyal person?
KF: Definitely. Very loyal. As students, Mr. Jang Song Thaek and Mr. Choe Ryong Hae both had eyes for Ms. Kim Kyong Hui. They are about the same age. Well, (Choe) is slightly younger. Maybe a year younger than me.
KIM KYONG HUI
NK News: About Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui. Recently the Asahi Shimbun reported that she was in Russia with an ailment. However, the Chosun Ilbo reported that she might have committed suicide, after the purge.
KF: That is an impertinent thing to say of a living person. So she’d been in Russia?
NK News: Yes, apparently between September to October she had been receiving treatment in Russia. But this was quite a bit before the execution of Jang Song Thaek. So what’s going on now?
KF: “She was an alcoholic. Her body was broken”
I got a call from [name obscured] asking about her yesterday. I said that if she is dead that it was probably suicide.
When faced with being in favor or not of Mr. Jang Song Thaek’s execution…How could she choose? I told them that she had probably became a mental and physical wreck…She was an alcoholic. Her body was broken.
NK News: In the book you also say that she would call out “Jang Song Thaek!” – but without traditional honorifics. Was it something like the flip-side of love?
KF: Yeah, well, that was when she was drunk. She’d bring a bottle to Mr. Jang Song Thaek who was standing in the back. This bottle, of course, would have been Shogun Kim Jong Il’s liquor, therefore you had to stand. Mr. Jang Song Thaek would see her coming towards him (with the bottle), but sometimes he would not stand. And then she’d yell out Jang~ Song~ Thaek~! As if she was saying, “You aren’t drinking?” And he’d drink.
There were moments like that. But (the lack of honorifics) had nothing to do with her liking him or not. They’d been married for a long time. And like I said, Mr. Jang Song Thaek’s side-business was to gather beautiful young girls. Mr. Jang Song Thaek had a weakness for cute girls. And he could do whatever he wanted with them…
NK News: And Kim Kyong Hui did not get mad about that?
KF: Why would she get mad for? They’re not young kids, for goodness sake. I mean she probably knew that she probably couldn’t be a good lover to him, considering her age. Especially since she was always drinking.
Part two of this extended interview, a profile on Kim Jong Un, will be published on Thursday at NK News
Special thanks to Ryo C. Kato for photography and translation assistance
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