Editor's note: This guest post to GroundTruth was provided by NK News, a Washington, DC-based independent news site focused on North Korea. We thought it offered a tiny glimpse into one of the opaque regimes in the world. A version of this post was originally published here.
TOKYO — The blossoming friendship between Kim Jong Un—supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—and retired American basketball superstar Dennis Rodman doesn’t seem so unlikely to Jong Un’s longtime friend and sushi chef for his father, Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym, of course).
In fact, Fujimoto said in a recent exclusive interview with NK News, Kim is a natural-born ruler, and the first signs of his high-quality leadership potential were manifest on the basketball court at a very early age.
Kenji Fujimoto served as chef to the former North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il—Kim Jong Un’s father—as well as a close companion to the junior Kim for more than 10 years, until leaving North Korea in 2001.
In his time with Jong Il’s three children Fujimoto was required to play two roles: the chef, who was on sushi duty, and the playmate, who wrote birthday cards—a task Fujimoto said makes him sure that Kim Jong Un’s birthday is January 8, 1983, and not the 1982 date noted by Pyongyang or the 1984 date noted by South Korean intelligence—and refereed basketball games for Kim Jong Un and his older brother, Jong Chol.
The young Kims played basketball from their early childhood—a hobby that was highlighted in yesterday’s FRONTLINE special on the secretive republic—because their father, the famously diminutive Dear Leader, hoped this would cause them to grow taller.
Fujimoto played an instrumental role here, bringing a basketball rulebook from Japan and frequently refereeing games for the Kim boys.
Jong Un in particular frequently wore a pair of basketball jerseys; one of which bore the number made famous by Michael Jordan in his playing days.
The other? The number worn by Dennis Rodman.
“He’d always wear (their jerseys),” Fujimoto said. “He liked them so much.”
And Jong Un’s leadership potential, at least compared to his older brother, was evident from his teens, according to the supreme playmate and chef. In basketball games, Jong Chol took a much more passive role than his younger brother, who would forcefully critique or praise his team’s play, according to their performance.
He also demonstrated more responsibility than Jong Chol, who would blame losses on decisions by the referee— often Fujimoto—rather than his team’s poor play.
Having spent a decade with the Kims before leaving North Korea, and subsequently being asked to return in 2012, Fujimoto became a companion to Jong Un in particular.
He said he knew when the now-leader was told he would take over, and not his older brother, because Jong Un did not walk into the room with his usual swagger, asking for cigarettes. Rather, he was somber and seemed almost in disbelief.
Despite his time spent with the Kims, however, Fujimoto said there were limits to how much of their 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 national founder Kim Il Sung, nearing his 80s by the time Fujimoto arrived, interacted with his grandchildren prior to his 1994 death.
But he did notice that Jong Un had long been acutely aware of the reforms needed to help North Korea’s economy—he saw how Kim Jong Un reacted to his country’s food shortages and economic deficiencies in the 1990s, and believed that a change was necessary.
“He’d see Japanese supermarkets with mountains of products,” he said. “Then he returns home and sees how there is nothing.
“He said, ‘Fujimoto, we have to imitate Chinese reforms (that started in the late-1970s).’ I thought, ‘This man will head towards reform. He knows that there must be change.’”
But the extensive interview with Fujimoto reveals that his relationship with Kim was not always so strong. In fact, he said, he actually did not have a favorable first meeting with the young leader. The chef, then in his early 40s, recalled how he waited in line to meet Kim Jong Il’s children.
When it was finally his turn, Fujimoto said, the young Jong Un and his older brother Jong Chol shook his hand. But the future leader, then about 7, looked at Fujimoto as though he were “trash” from Japan—the former imperial power that colonized Korea from 1910-1945.
Nevertheless, about a week later Jong Un “opened his heart” to Fujimoto when the chef helped him fly a kite. This was when Kim Jong Il asked Fujimoto to become a regular playmate to his sons, and the chef, unable to refuse such an offer, taught them a number of games from Japan.
Despite the troubled start, and even though Fujimoto returned to Japan near the beginning of the last decade, he was called back to North Korea to meet Kim Jong Un in late summer of 2012—a testimony to the close relationship they had.