He Had the Treasonous Uncle Killed, but He Forgave the Disloyal Chef

He said the boy was his father’s favorite among six children.

After years of working for the family, Mr. Fujimoto fled home to Japan, where he lived in fear that North Korean agents would punish him for disloyalty. But in 2012, he returned to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, for a visit at the request of Mr. Kim, who was now the country’s leader. The chef returned to Japan two weeks later with a positive review.

“The comrade general smiled and told me: ‘Your betrayal is now forgotten,’” Mr. Fujimoto said in a 2012 interview. He claimed the quality of life for average citizens had improved under Mr. Kim.

He Had the Treasonous Uncle Killed, but He Forgave the Disloyal Chef
He Had the Treasonous Uncle Killed, but He Forgave the Disloyal Chef

Mr. Fujimoto said he had been surprised at the prominent role of Mr. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, during a lunch meeting, a stark departure from his father’s style. Mr. Fujimoto said Mr. Kim was relaxed and cheerful, but also clearly in charge. The chef said Mr. Kim also seemed open to the idea of change in his country as they chatted over glasses of Bordeaux and smoked French cigarettes.

“The comrade-general listened to everything I said and nodded even when I urged him to open up the republic to the world,” Mr. Fujimoto said. “Kim Jong-il never would have sat still and listened to views like that.”

The family members


A photo by Kenji Fujimoto, a former chef for the Kim family, said to show Kim Jong-un as a boy.Credit Kenji Fujimoto, via Reuters

Relatives have also recounted their impressions of Mr. Kim as a youth. Among them were the leader’s maternal aunt, who was known in North Korea as Ko Yong Suk, and her husband, Ri Gang. The pair defected to the United States in 1998 and now go by different names for their safety.

The couple have not seen Kim Jong-un in nearly 20 years. But from 1996 to 2000 he lived in Switzerland while attending school, and lived with his aunt and uncle for part of that time. In 2016, they spoke extensively about him with the Washington Post.

“He wasn’t a troublemaker. But he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance,” Ms. Ko said. “When his mother tried to tell him off for playing with these things too much and not studying enough, he wouldn’t talk back. But he would protest in other ways, like going on a hunger strike.”

His aunt said that Mr. Kim’s official designation as his father’s successor was not known to the world until many years later. But Mr. Kim had known since 1992 that he was in line to rule.

At his eighth birthday party, he was given a general’s uniform and real generals bowed to him to pay their respects, she said.

“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ms. Ko said.

The basketball player


Mr. Kim and former NBA star Dennis Rodman at a basketball game in Pyongyang in 2013.Credit Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Dennis Rodman, the eccentric American basketball player, has visited North Korea five times since 2013 and met with Mr. Kim on three of those visits. The pair have since become unlikely friends.

In December 2017, when Mr. Rodman appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” he described their relationship.

“For some reason he trusts me,” Mr. Rodman said.

He said they had talked about basketball, a sport Mr. Kim loves and played in Switzerland when he was in school. Mr. Rodman insisted that he had seen a different side of Mr. Kim, whose oppressive rule and nuclear weapons testing has made him a world pariah.

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“I don’t see how people can sit there and say: ‘This person’s a madman.’ He probably is. But I didn’t see that,” Mr. Rodman said.

Asked about his discussions of North Korea’s nuclear program with Mr. Kim, he said the leader was clear that he did not want war.

“I think he really wants to change his culture,” Mr. Rodman said. “But I think he is forced to be in this position …”

The schoolmates

While Mr. Kim has been spent most of his life in North Korea, he attended the German-language Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school near Bern, Switzerland, from 1996 to 2000. Former classmates described him as a “good friend.”

Joao Micaelo, one of those classmates, said his peers thought he was the son of a staff member at the North Korean Embassy.

“We had a lot of fun together. He was a good guy,” Mr. Micaelo said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Lots of kids liked him.”

The boy he knew in school loved basketball and had a large collection of Nike sneakers, Mr. Micaelo said. Another classmate, Marco Imhof, also remembered him favorably.

“He was funny,” Mr. Imhof told the Daily Beast. “Always good for a laugh. He also hated to lose. Winning was very important.”

Correction: March 10, 2018

An earlier version of this article included incorrect attribution for a quotation. It was Dennis Rodman, not Kim Jong-un, who said, “I think he really wants to change his culture. But I think he is forced to be in this position …”

Martin Fackler and Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting.

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