The six-year-old Kim Jong Un stood by the billiard table in the games room of the royal residence at Sinchon, south of Pyongyang, one of dozens of palatial compounds reserved for North Korea’s first family.
He and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol, were waiting for their father to come out of a meeting with some officials.
They were dressed in child-sized military uniforms, olive green suits complete with gold buttons and red piping. They had moon-shaped hats on their heads and gold stars on their shoulders. They were little generals.
When their father entered the room, they stood to attention and saluted him, serious expressions on their chubby faces. Kim Jong Il was delighted and wanted to introduce the boys to the officials and the household staff before they went into the dining room next door. Everyone lined up to meet the boys, who were referred to as “little princes.”
Kenji Fujimoto, who had moved from Japan to North Korea to make sushi in the royal households, was at the end of the line. He grew more and more nervous as the princes got closer, his heart beating faster with every step they took.
Jong Chol was first. Fujimoto extended his hand, and the eight-year-old reciprocated with a firm shake. Then Fujimoto put out his hand to the younger child. This one was not so well mannered.
Instead of shaking Fujimoto’s hand, Jong Un glared at him with “sharp eyes” that seemed to say, “You abhorrent Japanese.” The chef was shocked and embarrassed that a child would stare down a forty-year-old man. After a few seconds that stretched out painfully for Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il intervened to save the situation.
“This is Mr. Fujimoto,” Kim Jong Il said, prompting “Prince Jong Un” to finally agree to shake hands, although without much enthusiasm. The chef thought there may have been some name recognition. Perhaps the boys had eaten the sushi he had prepared and heard that it had been made by “Fujimoto from Japan.”
Fujimoto was just one member of a team of chefs who prepared lavish meals for Kim Jong Il and his families. They made grilled pheasant, shark fin soup, Russian-style barbecued goat meat, steamed turtle, roast chicken and pork, and Swiss-style raclette cheese melted on potatoes. The royal family ate only rice produced in a special area of the country. Female workers handpicked each grain one by one, making sure to choose flawless grains of equal size.
Sushi was on the menu once a week. Fujimoto made lobster sashimi with wasabi soy sauce and nigiri sushi with fatty tuna, yellow tail, eel, and caviar. Seabass was Kim Jong Il’s favorite.
Even in the 1980s, before the Soviet Union collapsed and before famine struck North Korea, the population was riven with hunger. But Kim Jong Un experienced none of its privations and probably never saw the suffering of his fellow North Koreans in person.
Instead, he grew up in a world of walled compounds where everything revolved around him and life was pure luxury.
In the kitchens, there were cakes and French pastries, smoked salmon and pate, and tropical fruits like mangos and melons. They wore clothes made especially for them with British fabric that arrived by the Samsonite suitcase load. They brushed their teeth with imported Colgate, according to memoirs by two relatives who lived in the household of Kim Jong Un’s older half brother.
There were Sony televisions, computers, and video games so they could play Super Mario. There were pinball machines and grand pianos, Yamahas and Steinways, in every house.
The children had huge playrooms filled with more toys than any European toy store. There were mountains of Lego and Playmobil; boxes of jigsaw puzzles, more than they could ever get through; and plastic pistols with surprisingly realistic bullets, according to the memoirs.
There was every kind of four-wheeled toy imaginable, but Kim Jong Un also had a real vehicle and a real gun: a car his father had had specially modified so the little boy could drive it at age seven. He also had a Colt .45 pistol that he wore on his hip when he was eleven.
The houses had large, soundproofed cinemas with wood paneling to improve the acoustics and a black velvet curtain that would open when the lights went down. The children could sit in the soft armchairs and watch “Ben Hur,” Dracula, or James Bond movies.
There were gardens so large that they called them parks, with artificial waterfalls running into artificial lakes. They got around in golf carts or on mopeds. There were bears and monkeys in cages. Some of the compounds had large swimming pools; some had indoor and outdoor shooting ranges.
But Kim Jong Un’s favorite pastime was playing basketball on courts at the official residences — often with kids brought in especially to play games with the princes.
The boy would obsessively analyze the basketball games. He would point out players’ strengths and weaknesses, praising those he deemed to have played well and scolding those who had not. He seemed to be practicing the art of command, and he was enjoying the terror that his absolute authority could inspire.
It was, however, a solitary childhood. He and Jong Chol were schooled at home by tutors and they had no friends — they didn’t even play with their older half brother, Jong Nam, who lived his own entirely separate sequestered life. The little sister, Yo Jong, was too young to make her a good playmate.
'A bit lonely'
Even a princeling who wanted for nothing wanted friends.
“He was a bit lonely when he was little,” Fujimoto told me over lunch in the sleepy town in the Japanese Alps where he was living when I went to see him in 2016. Now, he’s back in North Korea, running a small sushi restaurant in Pyongyang, and maybe slicing fish for the current leader.
This loneliness seems to have led Kim Jong Un to seize on any opportunity for outside company. “I became a kind of playmate to him; we became like friends,” Fujimoto told me.
The presence of the sushi chef in the royal household was a contradiction in the regime. While North Korea’s existence was based on its rejection of the United States and its vision for a democratic world order, it was also built on a hatred of Japan.
Korea had suffered greatly during its colonization by Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. It formally annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910, starting thirty-five years of often-brutal colonial rule.
When Japan was defeated in 1945, it had to give up control of the peninsula to the victors. In both halves of the peninsula, the memories of this period run deep.
To this day, North Korea still regularly demonizes Japan in its state media.
But there’s one important detail that state propaganda never reported: Kim Jong Un has a strong personal connection to Japan. His beloved mother, a woman who would later be crowned “The Mother of the Great, Military-First Korea,” was born in Japan.
In 1929, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule, a young man called Ko Kyon Taek moved from the southern Korean island of Jeju to Osaka, a Japanese city that was becoming home to an increasingly large Korean community.
Then, after World War Two, Ko and his wife started a family: first, a son and then, on June 26, 1952, a daughter that they named Yong Hui.
Yong Hui went by the Japanese name of Hime Takada at her public elementary school in Osaka. She loved to perform and sang hymns in a church choir every Sunday. Four years later, a sister arrived. Her name was Yong Suk.
But their father soon got in trouble with the police. He was rumored to be operating an illegal boat connecting Osaka and Jeju and was reportedly ordered to be deported. There was talk that Ko was also a womanizer and had multiple children by different mistresses. To cut ties with these other women and get himself out of hot water, Ko decided to hightail it out of Japan.
Conveniently, North Korea had begun encouraging ethnic Koreans to return from Japan at the end of the 1950s. North Korea, the potential migrants were told, was a socialist paradise on earth — a country that offered free housing, education, and healthcare, where jobs were guaranteed, where Koreans would suffer none of the prejudice that they endured in Japan.
Between 1959 and 1965, more than 93,000 people fell for the Kim regime’s sales pitch. The Ko family joined the tide, boarding a repatriation ship bound for the North Korean port city of Chongjin.
For many ethnic Koreans who had left a country that was rapidly turning itself into a world economic power after the war, coming “home” was a huge disappointment. Some killed themselves on arrival when they realized they’d been duped.
Pyongyang’s version of the life that the returnees led in North Korea was, of course, very different. As part of its efforts to pretend life was rosy, the North Korean magazine Korean Pictorial featured the Ko family in its December 1972 issue, under the headline “My Happiness-Filled Family.”
The story mentions that the eldest girl, a certain Ko Yong Hui, was a member of the Mansudae Art Troupe and had been awarded a medal from Kim Il Sung. It does not mention that the beautiful dancers from the Mansudae troupe were often asked to attend the boozy parties that Kim Jong Il held and to perform for the men in his court.
Royal family travels
Kim Jong Il became smitten with Ko Yong Hui, asking her to sit with him at the parties, another dancer in the troupe later recalled. “Kim Jong Il took such a fancy that he came often into rehearsal rooms to watch her practice,” the dancer wrote in a memoir after defecting from the regime.
Ko was absent from practice more and more often, and gossip started flying around among the other dancers that she was living with Kim Jong Il or that she had given birth to his baby. She “married” Kim Jong Il — their union doesn’t appear to have been official, but this is how her sister later described it to me — in 1975.
But the dancer was more than a trophy wife. She was often up late at night, poring over paperwork with Kim and offering her opinions. Once, when a bodyguard was drunk and waved his gun at Kim Jong Il, Ko is said to have thrown herself between the men. She may have been born in Japan, but she had proven herself a true patriot, loyal not just to North Korea but to her powerful husband.
She also bore him two sons — prized in North Korea’s Confucian society as heirs who could carry on the family line.
She doted on them.
Soon after Kim Jong Un had stared down the Japanese sushi chef, everyone was in the huge garden at the family’s compound in Sinchon. The boys watched enthralled as Fujimoto flew a kite.
“That’s good. Thanks to Fujimoto, the kite is flying,” Ko Yong Hui said to her sons. Kim Jong Un was excited. About a month later, the chef said, he was asked to become the boys’ “playmate.”
He was very surprised. He was a grown man, and they were little boys. But it was impossible for him to say no. He wondered if it was because he was a foreigner and therefore somewhat exotic to the boys.
But perhaps Fujimoto just seemed to offer a bit of fun. After all, the boys had few other options in their isolated royal court.
Whenever he could, Fujimoto took Ko Yong Hui and the two “princes” angling for seabass on Kim Jong Il’s private boat. Every time Fujimoto caught a fish, the young Kim Jong Un, still in elementary school, would demand to hold the fishing rod and then cry out happily, “I caught it!”
The boys’ interest in Japan heightened after traveling there with their mother in 1991, when Kim Jong Un was seven years old. With fake Brazilian passports in hand, they took off for Tokyo.
While the regime spurted forth anti-Japanese hate, Ko Yong Hui went shopping in Ginza, the upmarket district in central Tokyo that was world famous for luxury, and got her hair done by people known at home as “imperialist aggressors.”
She took the boys to Tokyo Disneyland, where they were drawn to a 3-D attraction with a moving chair. The boys loved it so much that Ko had her staff inquire about its cost. She wanted to get one to take back to North Korea for her children.
But even for the North Korean royal family, the price was prohibitive. Still, for years after, they talked about their trip to Tokyo Disneyland and all the rides they had been on, trying to decide which one was the most fun.
Despite this fascination with Japan, and even as Fujimoto became a fixture in the royal household, Kim Jong Un reminded the sushi chef of his place. While Jong Chol addressed him with an honorific Korean suffix that loosely translates to “Mr.,” Jong Un continued to refer to him by the disrespectful “Fujimoto” only.
If Kim Jong Un had been any other child or, rather, any other rich kid, such episodes would be considered normal spoiled-brat behavior. But because there is so little other information about him, these stories have taken on an outsized significance.
Analysts and experts pore over such anecdotes for evidence of character flaws or influences that might somehow have shaped the man who leads North Korea today. They look for signs of psychological deficiencies as they try to game out how he might react in a time of crisis or, for example, in talks with leaders of enemy nations.
Fujimoto described a time when Kim Jong Un defied his mother’s orders to remain seated at the table while everyone else finished their dinner. “Let’s go, older brother,” he said to Jong Chol, and they ran outside.
Bowing to the heir
Certainly, the boy grew up thinking he was special. Jong Un’s eighth birthday party took place in a party hall at the royal compound in Wonsan. It was attended by high-level officials rather than other kids. Kim Jong Un was dressed in a black suit and a bow tie and was presented with bouquets of flowers.
From that moment on, even high-ranking officials bowed and deferred to Kim Jong Un whenever they saw him, his aunt and uncle told me when I met them in the United States almost 20 years after they deserted the regime. It was impossible for the boy to grow up as a normal child when the people around him were treating him like that, they said. And he quickly got used to giving commands.
As a boy, Kim Jong Un had been mad about all sorts of machinery, model planes and toy ships in particular. He wanted to know how they flew, how they floated. Even when he was eight or nine and still in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un would stay up all night doing experiments with his machinery — and insisting on speaking to some expert or other even in the wee hours of the morning if he couldn’t figure things out by himself.
When he had questions or when something didn’t function well, he would call for a nautical engineer to come and explain it to him, no matter how late it was, his aunt told me.
This, for her, revealed an aspect of his personality that had two sides: on the one hand, he had an incredible level of concentration, but on the other, he had a tendency to get hooked on an idea and take it too far. She didn’t use the word “obsessive,” but this was the trait she described.
In fact, when later living with them in Bern, the boy always wanted his aunt and uncle to buy him model planes from the toy store or to take him to a park where enthusiasts used to fly their crafts, and the obsession would last long into his adult years.
For fun, the man who played with model planes as a child now flies himself around in the light aircraft at his disposal. His regime even claims to be building planes that are very similar to the American-made Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
North Korean television showed Kim inspecting and then appearing to fly one of the small planes, cheered on by a crowd of air force pilots, in 2015. “The plane built by our working class had the top-notch performance; it was easy to maneuver, and the engine sounded just right! Well built!” he told the engineers.
In 2017, when analysts were combing through satellite images to figure out whether North Korea was going to launch a missile, one of the things they looked for was Kim Jong Un’s personal plane at a nearby airstrip.
North Korea’s own official accounts of Kim Jong Un’s childhood have confirmed the versions of events told by Fujimoto and by his aunt and uncle.
One day in 2010, when he was heir apparent, he told a military official who asked his advice about a new model of gun that he had “formed a close attachment with planes and warships” as a child.
“As a boy, I happened to get a bagful of toy planes somewhere,” he said, according to the North Korean publication “Anecdotes of Kim Jong Un’s Life.” The boy made a runway in the backyard and played with the toys often.
“Listening to this interesting story, the official was convinced that [Kim Jong Un’s] hobby and his view of life were connected with military affairs,” the book continues.
In any other country on earth, such an anecdote would be nothing more than a childhood recollection. But in the parallel propaganda universe of North Korea, it became a crucial part of his legitimacy myth. It wasn’t a story about a boy and his toys. It was incontrovertible proof that the little boy was a military genius who was destined to be leader.
A previous version of this story misidentified a photo as showing Kim Jong Un as a boy. The photo has been removed from this post.