From the outside, the key players in North Korea can seem like characters in an improbable science-fiction movie. The arch villain lives in a sumptuous palace and his scientists have built a nuclear weapon; his scowling henchmen wear outsized hats and too many medals; and the state-run media employs colourful hyperbole as it threatens to reduce the cities of its enemies to "seas of fire".

Behind the scenes, however, the life of the ruling family of the world's most isolated and unfathomable nation is closer to being like a soap opera, according to Kenji Fujimoto, a man who has been admitted into the inner circle. The tale he tells is one of sibling rivalries, adulation for Jean-Claude Van Damme's acting skills and hippo steaks.

Fujimoto - who served as the late Kim Jong-il's personal chef between 1988 and 2001 - is arguably the most authoritative source outside of the country on the antics of the ruling Kim family and what goes on behind the closed doors of their Pyongyang palaces.

Shortly after he fled North Korea and returned to Japan, where he remains, fearful for his life and unwilling to reveal where he lives, Fujimoto was criticised for tales he told in his 2003 memoir, I was Kim Jong-il's Cook, on the grounds that they were just too tall, too fanciful.

But Fujimoto - a pseudonym - was welcomed back to North Korea by Kim Jong-un in July last year and was not punished by the new leader for what he had written. His credibility had already risen after he correctly predicted Jong-un would be selected to take over from Jong-il, his father, who died in December 2011, in preference to his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam.

Furthermore, when talking with Fujimoto face to face, his anecdotes have a ring of truth about them, not least the one about the time he nearly killed Kim Jong-il and his extended family in a boating accident.

"Kim gave me a motor yacht back in the mid-1990s and I guess it must still be moored in Wonsan," says Fujimoto, dressed in a checked jacket, dark glasses and his trademark black bandana. "He had challenged me and another one of his circle to a race aboard two motor yachts and the winner would get to keep the boat.

"Kim was sitting on a chair on the pier at Wonsan, watching the race, and I won.

"Some time later, I had Kim and all his family on board and I took them for a cruise off the port there. We were having dinner and enjoying ourselves, but the wind began to pick up and the waves were getting bigger and Kim asked me if I thought it was still OK to be out on the ocean because it was becoming so rough.

"I didn't really know what I was doing, but I told him there was a big keel beneath the hull that would stop us tipping over and that we would be fine. Kim's family were in the cabin below and they were safe, but the wind kept getting stronger, so I decided that we should go back to the port, just to be on the safe side."

Demonstrating his amateurish grasp of boats, Fujimoto swung the wheel sharply to port.

"The boat tilted a long way over," he says, gesticulating to illustrate just how far. "And the water on that side was above the level of the windows in the cabin below. All the children and Kim's wife were screaming. It was terrifying, but I managed to right it again."

Fujimoto says a number of patrol vessels were shadowing the family cruise and would have probably saved them if the boat had capsized; but it could still have ended in tragedy.

Kim Jong-un was among those onboard, he says, adding that the thing he remembers most about the future head of state, then aged 11, was that he carried a Colt 45 pistol strapped to his belt.

"I first met Kim Jong-un in January 1990, when he was seven years old," Fujimoto recalls. "I will never forget the look he had, the stare of those strong eyes. That is something that is imprinted in my memory."

Jong-un and older brother Jong-chul were introduced to Fujimoto at a banquet for senior military officers and other officials, he says, describing the two boys as being dressed in miniature army uniforms and snapping to attention as soon as they saw their father.

"To me, it was a strange image to see young children do something like that," he says, with a shake of his head.


A SUSHI CHEF BYPROFESSION, Fujimoto first visited North Korea in September 1982. He was working in a Japanese restaurant in Pyongyang when, one morning, the manager told him to prepare the ingredients and equipment needed for a banquet for about 30 people later in the day. At 2pm, he recalls, three Mercedes limousines pulled up in front of the restaurant and he was ushered inside one of them.

After a two-hour drive, Fujimoto emerged outside a huge building resembling a palace, set on a wooded hillside overlooking the sea. He was led to a vast ballroom and told to start preparing the meal. Fujimoto draws a sketch of tables laid out in an open-ended rectangle and indicates the position where he was to prepare the sushi. He was ready at 8pm but the 20 revellers did not arrive until 2.30am.

"It was a wedding anniversary celebration for one of the senior military officers and they had been having a party on a boat off the coast," he says. "By the time they got back, they were hungry again. But when the door opened, and all I could see were military uniforms in front of me, my feet stopped working. I couldn't walk.

"I felt that if I did something wrong, even a little thing, they might shoot me."

As the evening wore on, 10 Thai women were summoned and the officers each chose one to sit by their side and pour their drinks, light their cigarettes and make sure they wanted for nothing.

"They had, of course, been kidnapped," says Fujimoto, of the women.

The only person not in a uniform showed a deep interest in Fujimoto's work, asking through an interpreter the name of each fish he was preparing. It was only the following day, when he saw a photograph of the same man on the front page of a newspaper, that he realised he had been speaking to Kim Jong-il.

There is a saying in Japanese that roughly translates as "two people who are fated to be together are drawn to each other by a red string attached to their little fingers". And so it was with Fujimoto and Kim.

In 1988, Fujimoto became Kim's chef, on a salary of about seven million yen a year (about HK$550,000, using the current exchange rate), although he says he only entered a kitchen to work for his boss once or twice a week.

"I was his playmate rather than his employee," he says. "I was treated as an honoured guest and I spent most of my time eating and talking with senior North Korean officials."

One of the dishes Kim most enjoyed was grilled eel, says Fujimoto. He also enjoyed puffer fish with platters of cold vegetables, but there were times when the dictator wanted a bit of variety in his diet.

"There were quite a few strange meal requests," Fujimoto says. "Kim once asked me to cook a snake for him, but I couldn't do that because I'm a sushi chef. In the end, they got someone else to make that for him. Another time, he decided he wanted hippopotamus." Quite where it came from at short notice is a mystery but "it was very good and tasted like chicken".

On another occasion, Kim decided he wanted to eat spiders, although Fujimoto says he didn't wait around while that particular dish was being prepared and served.

Kim had a prodigious appetite for both food and drink. Fujimoto draws a plan of a circular room - bottle racks lining the outside walls; a table with chairs and a grand piano in the middle - that served as Kim's party space.

"There were 10,000 bottles, maybe more," Fujimoto says. "One day he asked me to fetch something that was not in the collection. He wanted the Suntory Imperial whisky, a really good one that sells for about 16,000 yen a bottle. When I went back and told him that I couldn't find one, he just told me to bring him one back when I went to Japan next time."

As ordered to, Fujimoto returned with a bottle of the whisky and poured it for the leader, who pronounced it to be "fabulous!"

Kim was a connoisseur of Bordeaux wines, too, and, towards the end of an evening of carousing, he would swill XO cognac around a glass.

Kim's busy schedule of banquets and preoccupation with developing nuclear weapons - and missile systems to deliver them - inevitably meant he did not spend a great deal of time with his children. When his family travelled overseas for holidays - Europe and Southeast Asia were apparently favourite destinations - Kim Jong-il stayed home to concentrate on affairs of state. He also did not like flying, which drastically limited his holiday options.

"I would not say that Kim Jong-un was necessarily spoiled, but his mother was not very strict about his education and he was not forced to study hard or get a good education," Fujimoto says. "He does not have to understand English or any other languages because they will always have a translator with them in those situations."

When the future ruler was seven years old, he had his own Mercedes, with the seat and pedals specially adapted so he could drive around the grounds of the palaces. Recalling sitting in the passenger seat as the little boy took the car for a spin, Fujimoto says he was "a very good driver".

He also helped Jong-un make stilts and the boy practised regularly until he was able to walk comfortably on the metre-high leg extensions.

The youngster had a bit of a temper, too, says the chef. One day Jong-chul gave him bad advice when they were playing a board game and Jong-un lost.

"He looked up at Jong-chul's face with an angry expression and suddenly threw a marble at him. He was around eight years old then, and Jong-chul was not hurt because he was quick enough to move, but …"

By 2000, Jong-un, then a teenager, had developed an interest in action movies.

"He really liked Hollywood films and he's always happy to see anything like that," Fujimoto says. "He especially likes Jean-Claude Van Damme; he told me that his acting is 'awesome'. And when he saw a shot with Van Damme without his shirt on, Kim said he wanted to have muscles like that.

"So he started buying fitness equipment and taking protein supplements. And, when I saw him last year, I have to say that his muscles had developed."

By 2001, Fujimoto had thoughts about returning to Japan but feared his long-term host would be angered by any suggestion that he wanted to leave. Ultimately though, a growing sense of being spied on was behind his decision to flee. Fujimoto told Kim Jong-il that he wanted to collect some top-quality sea urchin from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. Leaving his North Korean wife and daughter in Pyongyang, the chef arrived in Japan and went into hiding.

Following the death of Kim Jong-il, Fujimoto reached out to his son and heir in an effort to lift what he considers a genuine threat to his life.

"The first thing I have to say is that I did not expect such a wonderfully warm welcome, such a gracious greeting from Kim [Jong-un]," says Fujimoto of his return to Pyongyang last year. "When we first met, we shook hands and hugged each other before we went in for the banquet.

"When we sat down, he leaned over and said to me, 'Mr Fujimoto, we have forgotten all about your betrayal. It is all over now. Thank you for coming and you are always welcome to come to the republic.'"

Fujimoto says he was so overcome that he barely touched his shark fin soup because he was crying so much.

"At the end of the evening, my handkerchief was sopping wet."

He doesn't say what kind of reception he received from his own wife and daughter.

There had been some noticeable changes in Pyongyang in the years he had been away, Fujimoto says, with more food - including ice cream - now available in stores. And despite the recent tensions with the rest of the world, Fujimoto believes Kim Jong-un has no intention of going to war.

"He is just trying to get the United States to sit down at the same table, to negotiate with them and maybe get some concessions from them," he says. "If North Korea went to war with the US, I believe the longest it could hold out for would be maybe one week; it might only last three days.

"I told Kim Jong-un that he should switch the direction of the republic, that it's not too late," he says. "I asked him to never launch another missile; I told him to be careful."

Young and inexperienced, Kim is surrounded by military and political leaders, each with their own agenda and each vying for his ear. Might it be possible that a Japanese chef who once taught him how to use stilts has the best chance of talking the supreme leader out of making a potentially fatal geopolitical error?