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.

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

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. 

“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.

“Though on the surface, it seems North Korea is taking a very adversarial position,” he says, “there is the feeling North Korea wants to clasp hands as soon as possible.” He adds, for emphasis, “that feeling exists toward Japan as well.”

Japanese leaders, however, clearly do not subscribe to this view.

The central government has sent detailed confidential messages to local officials outlining how to respond “if flying objects should drop on the mainland” as a result of the missile shot. The message states that North Korea has said the missile will fly over the Yellow Sea on a trajectory past the Philippine islands but outlines precautions in case it veers over Japan. (Read more about North Korea's prep for a rocket launch, despite international warnings)

Fujimoto says Kim Jong-un invited him back to North Korea with warm memories of their friendship from when Kim Jong-un was a child. In answer to a question about Kim Jong-un's age, the topic of much speculation, he says's he's 29 and will turn 30 on Jan. 8.

Fujimoto married a North Korean woman, but she remained in the North when he returned to Tokyo in 2001 on what was to have been a mission to purchase food to satisfy the tastes of Kim Jong-il. 

Kim Jong-un greeted Fujimoto with a hug and a handshake in July and hosted a welcome banquet attended by Mr. Jang and North Korea's ambassador to Switzerland, where Kim Jong-un had gone to school for several years, he says. Fujimoto gives the impression, however, that he did not discuss policy issues deeply with his host.

Although the visit seemed to have been a success, Fujimoto's access remains uncertain. He was to have gone again in September but delayed the trip for a week at the request of Japan's foreign ministry.

He said that an official had asked him to wait while the government prepared a letter for him to carry on behalf of Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. At the end of the week, however, the official said Mr. Noda had decided not to send a letter, and the North Korean Embassy in Beijing then turned him down when he showed up expecting to get a visa.

Fujimoto says he trusts Kim Jong-un, however, to receive him again. During his latest visit, he says, “I heard many people saying Kim Jong-un is the best.” He believes “this young leader has a great will that he wants to solve problems” and that he “has the ability to change North Korea little by little.”

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