There is growing concern over the well-being of the former chef to North Korea’s ruling dynasty, with reports suggesting that the Japanese citizen disappeared in the hermit kingdom as long ago as February.
Japan’s Daily Shincho news magazine reported this week that Kenji Fujimoto had been arrested, an announcement that coincides with the disappearance of Alek Sigley, the Australian founder of a travel company that operates tours to North Korea.
Australian authorities have issued a statement saying that they are looking “for clarification” on the fate of Mr Sigley.
Japanese officials have been less forthcoming about the whereabouts of Mr Fujimoto, who served for 13 years as the personal sushi chef to Kim Jong-il, the former dictator, and as a playmate to Kim Jong-un when he was a child.
“We are collecting and analysing information on the circumstances surrounding North Korea but, due to the nature of this matter, it is not appropriate to disclose information on specific cases”, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The Telegraph.
The official confirmed that the ministry is aware of the reports that Mr Fujimoto is being detained in the North but declined to confirm that it knew his whereabouts.
The Daily Shincho report quoted a Japanese intelligence official as suggesting that Mr Fujimoto may have been seized for “past betrayal”.
Mr Fujimoto became Kim Jong-il’s personal chef in 1988 and, in books and countless interviews and television appearances after he fled back to Japan in 2001, told of motorboat races between the members of the Kim family, parties where attractive women were paired off with top military officers.
He also spoke of preparing unusual meals, according to Kim’s whim, claiming he once cooked hippopotamus steaks and that he carefully declined a request to prepare snakes and spiders.
In a 2003 interview, Mr Fujimoto said he first met Kim Jong-un when he was seven years old.
“I will never forget the look he had, the stare of those strong eyes”, he said. “That is something that is imprinted in my memory”.
Kim Jong-un already had his own Mercedes, with a seat and pedals adapted so he could drive it around the Kim family’s palaces. He later developed a fascination with Hollywood films, in particular anything starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
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Mr Fujimoto expressed concern that he could be a target for North Korean revenge for his “disloyalty”, but that appeared to have been allayed when he returned to Pyongyang in 2013 for a tearful reunion with Kim Jong-un.
In 2017, Mr Fujimoto returned to North Korea permanently and opened a sushi restaurant called Takahashi.
And while Kim Jong-un may have chosen to overlook his previous revelations, Mr Fujimoto may have crossed a line by reportedly speaking to Anna Fifield, a Washington Post correspondent and author of new biography of Kim, The Great Successor.
In one passage about Kim Jong-un when he was younger, Fifield describes the dictator as “used to being doted upon and having his own way from a very early age”.
It has also been suggested that North Korean authorities may have suspected that Mr Fujimoto was in the pay of the CIA, although that is an allegation that the regime regularly levels against people who have fallen out of favour.
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