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Japanese chef dishes on North Korean leader and missile launch

'It’s hard to understand why surrounding countries are so sensitive,' says Kenji Fujimoto, who left North Korea in 2001 but returned for a visit last summer at Kim Jong-un’s invitation.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 6, 2012

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) waves during the Fourth Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang earlier this year.

KCNA/REUTERS

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Tokyo

The Japanese chef who cooked for North Korean leaders for 13 years – before finding a pretext to return to Japan – believes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has no desire to upset other countries by sanctioning the firing of a long-range missile later this month. 

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“It’s hard to understand why surrounding countries are so sensitive,” says Kenji Fujimoto, who left North Korea in 2001 but returned for several weeks last summer at Kim Jong-un’s invitation. “Even if a nuclear warhead were attached,” he says, “North Korea would never actually push the button.” North Korea’s nuclear program is “only a deterrence” he believes, to attack by other countries. 

Mr. Fujimoto offered the rationale for North Korea’s plan to launch the missile sometime between next Monday and Dec. 22 during a barrage of questions by journalists after he talked here about his return to North Korea in July. His sanguine view contrasts with that of officials in Japan, the United States, and South Korea who see the plan to launch the missile as a hostile move that can only exacerbate tensions in the region.

Earlier in the day, for instance, Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, commander of the 50,000 US troops in Japan, characterized the plan as possibly creating “a very dangerous situation.” And in Seoul, South Korea’s unification ministry said the South would “sternly deal” with what it called “a direct and serious security threat to us.”

Fujimoto, who served as a chef specializing in preparing sushi for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from 1988 to 2001, is convinced this response misses the central reason why North Korea plans to launch the missile.

“I do not believe Kim Jong-un is acting aggressively,” he says. Rather, “he has the idea somewhere in his heart to shoot off something to honor his father” on the first anniversary of his death on Dec. 17. “It’s unavoidable to have the launching of the rocket on that day,” he goes on. Moreover, he adds, “he feels he must do this as a demonstration of his future.”

That remark suggests Kim Jong-un’s need to prove his strength against the background of a power struggle in which a number of top generals have lost their jobs. Fujimoto accepts the widespread view that Kim Jong-un's uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek, husband of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, is the country’s second most powerful leader – “in the background” possibly making the key decisions.

Fujimoto believes Kim Jong-un actually would like to improve relations with the US, South Korea, and Japan.

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