The Japanese chef who dished up sushi for North Korea's ruling dynasty for 13 years believes no one should be upset by the North's firing of a long-range missile. Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong-il's sushi chef from 1988 to 2001, was convinced the "Dear Leader's" son, Kim Jong-un, had "the idea in his heart to shoot off something to honour his father" by the first anniversary of his death on December 17. Also, he told journalists in Tokyo, Kim Jong-un "feels he must do this as a demonstration of his future".
Analysts see that remark as suggesting that Kim needs to prove his strength in the power struggle in which a number of top generals have lost their jobs. At the same time, Fujimoto believes Kim hopes to improve relations with South Korea, the US and Japan. "Though on the surface, it seems North Korea is taking a very adversarial position," he said, "there is the feeling North Korea wants to clasp hands as soon as possible."
Fujimoto, who returned to North Korea for a visit last summer at Kim's invitation, may not be an expert on evolving relations among nations with a stake in East Asia, but he clearly has a role to play in getting across the inner sentiments of the regime. His remarks fit into the context of changes as the major players enter a new period with new leaders. In the year since Kim succeeded his father in North Korea, China has undergone a power transition, and both Japan and South Korea are in the midst of leadership elections.
Barack Obama remains US president, but he's going to name a new cast of cabinet members. Hillary Rodham Clinton's successor as secretary of state will want to "review" US policy on Korea after years of support for the "hardline" attitude of South Korea's outgoing President Lee Myung-bak. And the winner of South Korea's election on December 19 will surely want to open dialogue with North Korea that includes consideration of renewal of aid as a priority.
We must not delude ourselves with the dream that North Korea might finally cancel its nuclear and missile programmes, but the North could adopt a more open attitude, leading to significant commercial and cultural exchanges, including renewal of tours from the South to Mount Kumgang, cut off in July 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean woman who had wandered outside the carefully delineated tourist zone.
The North-South confrontation takes place against a backdrop of shifting relations among the region's stakeholders. The US "pivot" towards Asia will change the dynamics of regional rivalries. And both the US and Japan are extremely concerned about China's increasingly aggressive claims to sovereignty over the South and East China Seas.
The US has increased the number of warships in the region, but would it deploy them in any battle for the uninhabited island cluster known as the Senkakus by the Japanese and the Diaoyus by the Chinese? Certainly, Japan sees US military support as vital in the dispute if its alliance with the US has any real meaning.
Luckily, the US need not worry about a potential armed struggle over the rocky islets known as Dokdo to Koreans and Takeshima to Japanese. They are held by South Korea, and Japan is not going to press its claim militarily.
Fujimoto is confident Kim "has a great will to solve problems". Asked about Kim's age, he said he will turn 30 on January 8. In the US pivot towards Asia, we can only hope that Fujimoto knows as much about Kim's desire for reconciliation as he claims to know about his age.
Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea