North Korea invited U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker in October 2010 and showed him its uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon. It was the first time the North gave a foreigner access to the top-secret facility. North Korea had also shown Hecker its nuclear facilities after reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods in January of 2004 and following its first nuclear test in October of 2006. Every visit by Hecker was followed by intense debate in the U.S. between doves who called for negotiations with Pyongyang and hawks who urged increased pressure on the secretive regime.
Regardless of Hecker's intentions, North Korea used him every time it needed to make a deal with the U.S. with its nuclear weapons as leverage.
People like Hecker, who have some access to the reclusive North Korean regime, command respect and attention in Washington. They publish books based on what they saw and heard in North Korea and perform advisory services to the U.S. government. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is another such person. He visited North Korea just after it shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island and said the North refrained from retaliating against the South when it conducted firing drills near the island following the shelling incident because it wished to hold talks with Washington. These people often fall into the trap of saying what Pyongyang wants them to say in order to guarantee a return ticket to the North that will allow them to make a living as North Korea experts.
The former sushi chef to late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who goes by the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, has also made a career out of peddling his inside stories about the secretive lives of the Kim family. In early 2009, Fujimoto predicted that Kim Jong-il's third son Jong-un would succeed him, and when his prediction came true two years later, sales of his books took off and the press lined up to interview him. There was talk in Japan’s media circles that the amount of information he divulges changes with the amount of money he is paid for interviews.
The Chosun Ilbo interviewed Fujimoto at the end of 2010 but on condition that he was not paid for his comments. When a photographer tried to take his picture for the article, Fujimoto put a scarf over his head and donned a pair of sunglasses saying he feared for his safety if his identity was exposed. "Kim Jong-un was interested in girls, smoked and was very masculine when he was a boy," Fujimoto said at the time. In retrospect, he seemed to want to stress that Kim Jong-un showed charisma and leadership ability from a young age. Fujimoto always referred to Kim as "leader." At the end of the interview, Fujimoto said he had a message for Kim and said, "Leader Jong-un, I am confident that you will do a good job of ruling North Korea."
During his latest trip to North Korea, Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju duly threw a party for him. If he is telling the truth, the North must still find him to be of some use. "Stores in Pyongyang were brimming with products and people in the streets looked cheerful," Fujimoto said. "North Korea has changed a lot since Kim Jong-un assumed power. All of this is because of leader Kim Jong-un."
Fujimoto's comments may be calculated, but taken with a grain of salt, they could offer some clues about the reality in the North.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Jeong Woo-sang