Despite the some of the diplomatic successes between Japan and North Korea (like the repatriation of Japanese citizens or collaborating on a giant monster movie) and the fact that North Korea’s Kim family has more ties to Japan than it’d like to admit, relations are pretty dismal between the two countries.
North Korea hasn’t forgiven Japan’s invasion and occupation of the Korean peninsula, and still views Japan as its biggest enemy. In the past, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has kidnapped and killed Japanese citizens and threatened to nuke Japan into oblivion.
Given that history, it’s amazing that a Japanese man is one of the biggest confidants of the Kim family, and has become a linchpin between Japan and North Korea. That man? Kenji Fujimoto, a sushi chef who’s been serving the Kims on and off for over two decades.
Fujimoto’s fashion sense: WWE wrestler meets aging sushi chef
Fujimoto (not his real name) knows more about the inner workings of North Korea than most governments. After living in the DPRK and gaining the trust of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, Fujimoto’s wealth of knowledge about the country has helped Japan—and the world at large—understand more about the hermit kingdom.
Even high-level Japanese officials like Isao Iijima, who visited North Korea earlier this year, don’t have the kind of access that Fujimoto has to DPRK’s ruling Kim family. Nobody outside of the North Korea knew current leader Kim Jong-un’s age (about 30) until Fujimoto casually mentioned it at a press conference.
Fujimoto’s unique knowledge and experiences have made him a minor celebrity in Japan; after leaving North Korea over a decade ago Fujimoto hasn’t worked a normal job, instead living off of book deals, interviews, and TV appearances.
Earlier this week, GQ released a new interview with Fujimoto. The interview is great not only for people who’ve never heard of Fujimoto before, but also for those (like myself) who are familiar with Fujimoto and his time in North Korea, but don’t know some of the nitty-gritty details.
Fujimoto covers his childhood, his first foray into the DPRK, his friendship with Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and taking care of Kim Jong-il’s sons, including current leader Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un was apparently introduced to his favorite basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, by Fujimoto, who brought VHS tapes of the Bulls to North Korea for the Kim boys to watch.
Think of it—without Fujimoto, Dennis Rodman might never have visited North Korea.
That’s not a world I want to live in.
Kim. Rodman. Double Team 2. Summer 2014.
It’s fascinating to me to think about Fujimoto’s profound influence on North Korea, and what it means for the two countries. The DPRK has a reputation as being the most isolated country in the world, and Japan is North Korea’s number one enemy.
Despite all that, North Korea and Japan can’t shake each other. If one Japanese man can have such a profound influence the supposedly closed off country of North Korea, it’s impossible to deny the interdependent relationship between Japan and North Korea.
The two have hundreds of years of history together and the actions and policies of each country affect the other more than they might care to admit.
But the most interesting thing to me about the GQ interview is that not only does Fujimoto plan to return to North Korea, but he wants to switch up his cooking. Instead of making sushi in North Korea, he wants to try his hand at making ramen.
Maybe this is interesting to me because it means that Fujimoto has emotionally moved on from Kim Jong-il, who loved sushi; maybe it’s because it marks ramen replacing sushi as Japan’s national dish; or maybe it’s because I just love ramen.
Probably the latter.
Read the GQ interview if you haven’t already to read more about Fujimoto and his life in North Korea.
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