The former sushi chef to North Korean leader 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 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 rule of the Kim family dynasty.

Speculation about the character and intentions of Kim, who succeeded his father last year, has soared amid North Korea’s plans to use a three-stage rocket to launch a satellite into orbit this month despite strong opposition from the United States, Japan and South Korea and expressions of concern from China.

Asked Thursday to clear up doubts about precisely how young North Korea’s new “young leader” really is, former chef Kenji Fujimoto said Kim was born Jan. 8, 1983. “Next year, Kim Jong Eun will be a perfect 30,” Fujimoto said.

Although a former chef’s comments hardly count as official confirmation, Fujimoto gained almost unique experience as a foreigner in Kim Jong Il’s court, having been employed by the autocratic leader as a chef in the late 1980s until he fled Pyongyang in 2001.

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 return visit to Pyongyang in July and August at the invitation of the younger Kim, that Fujimoto said began with him tearfully hugging the new leader and begging for forgiveness for his “betrayal” in fleeing 11 years ago.

In other possible insights into Kim’s regime, Fujimoto speculated that the youthful leader was keen to reform North Korea and saw the impending rocket launch not as an aggressive act but as a tribute to his father that would be carried out on the Dec. 17 anniversary of his death. The United States and its allies view the launch as a de facto long-range missile test.

Fujimoto suggested that security around 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 Kim’s authority is far more limited than his father’s was, saying that the young leader’s uncle Chang Sung Taek could be the person “really moving things in the background.”

Fujimoto’s account of his recent visit indicates that impoverished North Korea’s elite continue to enjoy Japanese sushi and French wines, with 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. Fujimoto said that he had pledged to Kim that he would return Sept. 1 but had delayed the trip at the request of a Japanese minister. The minister has denied requesting any delay.

When 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.”

— Financial Times