North Korea’s Runaway Sushi Chef Remembers Kim Jong Un

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KCNA / Reuters

North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un visits the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the Korean People's Army in Pyongyang in a picture released by KCNA on Jan. 1, 2012

Kenji Fujimoto is easy to recognize, if only because of the trademark disguise he has been wearing for the past decade or so. The longtime sushi chef to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Fujimoto has been laying low since returning to his native Japan in 2001, moving house frequently and wearing a variety of headgear and dark sunglasses to avoid any unwanted attention. Indeed, his name is not actually Kenji Fujimoto: that is the nom de plume he has been writing under since his first book, I Was Kim Jong Il’s Chef, was published in 2003.

Despite his efforts, Fujimoto does not exactly blend in with the black-clad office crowd making their way home in the purplish light of a Tokyo dusk. Sporting a silver goatee, a blue scarf wrapped snugly around his skull and blue-tinted sunglasses, the middle-aged chef turned author walks past Tokyo Station with a battered brown leather briefcase in hand. In a country fixated on the behavior of its secretive nuclear-armed neighbor, Fujimoto’s years of proximity to North Korea’s First Family have gained him a regular spot on Japanese television, particularly in the month since the death of the Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17.

(READ: After Kim Jong Il: A Look at the Kim Family Tree.)

Why? Fujimoto is one of the few people outside the regime’s inner circle to have been tight with the Dear Leader’s heir, Kim Jong Un. So tight, he says, that he insisted to his publisher that his fourth book, Successor of the North: Kim Jong Un, be published on Oct. 10, 2010 – the day he predicted, through a complicated formula having to do with Kim Jong Il’s penchant for baccarat and the No. 9, that Kim would name his youngest son as the next leader of North Korea.

The announcement was made to the world that day, but Fujimoto says it was years earlier, on the son’s 9th birthday, that the boy’s future came into focus. “Kim Jong Il gave him a song as a birthday gift,” he says over dinner at a Sichuan restaurant in central Tokyo. The song, whose title translates as “Sound of Footsteps,” made it clear that Kim Jong Un, not either of his older brothers, was the chosen one.

Fujimoto, who first moved to North Korea in 1982 and started working for Kim Jong Il in 1988, did not meet the leader’s youngest son until the boy was 7. Until then, he says, neither he nor the majority of the officials in the North Korean leader’s entourage had even seen his two younger sons, Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chul. (Fujimoto has never met Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who is estranged from his family and lives in Macau.) Their initial greeting was tense, the former chef recalls. He put out his hand, but the young Kim Jong Un left him hanging, staring sharply up at him as if he were “one of the notorious Japanese imperial soldiers.” Eventually, at the urging of his father, the son gave Fujimoto a limp handshake.

Nevertheless, not long after, Fujimoto was chosen to be one of the boys’ regular companions and would play with the brothers and other kids in the family every day. From that early age, he says, “Jong Un was always the leader. He decided what to play. He always spoke for the group.” And Kim Jong Chul, whom Fujimoto describes as having a “warm heart” and being “nonaggressive,” was happy to let his younger brother take the lead. “If I was their father, I would have chosen Kim Jong Un too,” he says.

Fujimoto has high hopes for the young leader’s tenure in one of the world’s most isolated and impoverished nations. In Successor of the North: Kim Jong Un, he describes how the teenager would, unbeknownst to his father, went to Fujimoto’s room to bum an Yves Saint Laurent cigarette from the chef. (The book includes a small photograph of one of the cigarette packs.) During one of these clandestine smoke breaks, the young Kim reportedly wondered aloud how, while he was enjoying Rollerblading and horseback riding on the family compound, the North Korean people were faring. “He can lead North Korea in a good direction,” Fujimoto says. “What his grandfather Kim Il Sung couldn’t do, and what his father Kim Jong Il couldn’t do, will be done by Kim Jong Un … I believe he will choose a path of change and reform.” When asked about reports that he would closely follow the policy of his father, Fujimoto says, flatly, “You are wrong.”

While Fujimoto stops short of calling Kim bright — “he’s not the intelligent type,” he says — he clearly had a soft spot for the kid. Under increasing state surveillance, the chef decided to leave North Korea permanently in 2001. The day before, he had a bad fall off a horse. Kim, who was 18 at the time, called to check on him. He insisted his childhood buddy go to a nearby guesthouse in Pyongyang where he and some friends were having a get-together. “I ran over there,” recalls Fujimoto, and saw that Kim was drinking a bottle of expensive vodka with some of his favorite basketball players from the national team. Kim knew Fujimoto was leaving for Japan the next day, as he regularly did to get supplies for his kitchen. “You’re coming back, right?’” Fujimoto says he asked. He told him he would. “Then he ordered me, ‘Come back.’”

Fujimoto tears up at the recollection. “I lied to him,” he says, wiping at his eyes under his glasses. “I had already made up my mind to stay in Japan … Whenever I think about that, it makes me cry.” He did, however, get a last souvenir: Kim had been looking through old photos at the guesthouse with his friends and gave Fujimoto an old black-and-white photo of himself as a young boy. Kim told him that he could have it, but he “could never show it to the public.” The photo — a grainy headshot of a smiling Kim Jong Un — graces the cover of Fujimoto’s latest book.

MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Kim Jong Un