The former sushi chef to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has revealed a secret from the reclusive nuclear-armed nation’s inner sanctum – the exact age of the late leader’s son and heir Kim Jong-eun.
Doubts about Mr Kim’s age – he has widely been described as being “believed to be about 29” – highlight the ignorance and uncertainty that have shrouded contacts between the international community and Pyongyang throughout the Kim family dynasty.
Speculation about the character and intentions of Mr Kim, who succeeded his father last year, has soared amid North Korea’s plans to test launch a ballistic missile this month despite strong opposition from the US, Japan and South Korea and expressions of concern from China.
Asked on Thursday to clear up doubts about precisely how young North Korea’s new “young leader” really is, former chef Kenji Fujimoto said Mr Kim was born on January 8, 1983. “Next year Kim Jong-eun will be a perfect 30,” Mr Fujimoto said.
While a former chef’s comments hardly count as official confirmation, Mr Fujimoto won almost unique experience as a foreigner in the Kim Jong-il court from being employed by the dictator as a chef in the late 1980s until he fled Pyongyang in 2001.
Mr Fujimoto has been one of only a few sources of information about Kim Jong-eun, whose closeness to his father he revealed in a memoir of his time in North Korea.
The former chef made a much-remarked visit back to Pyongyang in July and August at the invitation of Mr Kim, that Mr Fujimoto said began with him tearfully hugging the dictator and begging for forgiveness for his “betrayal” in fleeing 11 years ago.
In other possible insights into Mr Kim's regime, Mr Fujimoto speculated that the young leader was keen to reform North Korea and saw the impending missile launch not as an aggressive act but as a tribute to his father that would be carried out on the December 17 anniversary of his death.
He suggested security around Mr Kim was tighter than it had been in his father’s day, with visitors checked for any sign of fever or ill-health.
He also offered support for suggestions that Mr Kim's authority is far more limited than his father’s was, saying the young leader’s uncle Chang Sung-taek could be the person “really moving things in the background”.
Mr Fujimoto's account of his recent visit indicates that impoverished North Korea’s elite continue to enjoy fine living on Japanese sushi and French wines, with Mr Kim apparently frequently recalling their early association during his drinking sessions.
However, the former chef has not been permitted to revisit North Korea since August, a situation he blames on the Japanese government. Mr Fujimoto says he had pledged to Mr Kim to return on September 1, but delayed the trip at the request of a Japanese minister. The minister has denied requesting any delay.
When Mr Fujimoto finally sought to travel to Pyongyang he was denied a visa. “I broke the first promise of the year,” he said, “so as a result, people there are saying Fujimoto is a liar.”