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Kim Jong-Il's sushi chef praises dead leader's son after flying visit to North Korea

By David McNeill in Tokyo

Few foreigners get an invitation to the inner circle of North Korea's first family. But Kenji Fujimoto, who has just returned from a meeting with leader Kim Jong-Un inside the reclusive, nuclear-armed state, has been there before.

For 12 years, the Japanese man was the personal sushi chef of Kim's gourmet-loving father, Kim Jong-Il, until he fled in 2001, leaving behind his North Korean wife and children. He has spent the time since writing tell-all books about his life in the north, charging cash for interviews and living the life of a semi-recluse because he says his life is in danger.

When he appears in public, Mr Fujimoto disguises himself with a bandana and sunglasses. All of which makes his return to Pyongyang very mysterious to some.

In Beijing last week, on his way back to Tokyo, Mr Fujimoto insisted there were no hard feelings between the two men. "He [Kim Jong-Un] told me, 'long time no see'," he told reporters. "Then he said, 'you're welcome here any time'." The once heavyset teenager had become "tubbier", he added and looked "more like a leader".

The Japanese media, which follows every twitch of the North's monolithic face, speculates that Mr Fujimoto was carrying backchannel messages from the Japanese government to the Kim regime, or vice versa, a claim he denied.

"I did not visit North Korea to conduct government business," he told reporters. The two sides have no diplomatic relations, making an insider a valuable commodity at a time when some believe that Tokyo is again trying to knock on the North's backdoor.

Mr Fujimoto's reputation was boosted when he correctly predicted two years ago that the ailing Kim Jong-Il would name his youngest son as his successor.

In fact, says the ex-chef, he knew years earlier on Jong-Un's ninth birthday, that his fate had been decided. The young Prince was his father's favourite, he recalls, a strong-willed boy who "knew how to lead people," unlike his "timid" older brother Kim Jong Chul, who famously tried to visit Tokyo Disneyland on a forged passport in 2001.

Fujimoto started working for the family household in 1988. He first met the future leader when he was a seven-year-old boy, an encounter Fujimoto remembers as being "tense." Kim Jong-Un glared at the chef as if he was "one of the notorious Japanese imperial soldiers," he told Time magazine, before yielding and shaking hands.

Later Mr Fujimoto would take a now famous snap of the 11-year-old Kim sporting a pudding-bowl haircut, for years the only available image of the future leader.

In his books, he describes the future dictator rollerblading, driving a specially adapted Mercedes Benz and sneaking into his room for clandestine cigarette breaks, away from the prying eyes of his father.

Under increasing surveillance, Mr Fujimoto left for Japan 11 years ago, ostensibly for kitchen supplies. Before he left, he told Jong-Un that he would return – a lie that makes him cry every time he recalls it in public.

Quite why the chef was invited back remains a mystery. Japanese broadcaster TBS reportedly paid for the two-week trip and sent a TV crew to film the encounter, but is saying nothing. Perhaps Kim, who some believe will reform his impoverished nation, was trying to send a signal back to Tokyo with the invitation to his old friend?

Mr Fujimoto has declined comment on that too, but he says he believes Kim is sincere about reform. "He can lead North Korea in a good direction," he told Time. "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."

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