Kim Jong Il, supreme leader of North Korea, died Saturday of an apparent heart attack during a train ride, state television reported Monday. He was 69, according to official sources. Kim, known in his homeland as “The Lodestar of the 21st Century” and by more than 2,000 other titles, is reported to have had a history of serious ailments, including diabetes, stroke and pancreatic cancer. He may have been on dialysis at the time of his death. In North Korea, he was considered a “contemporary god.”
Kim formally assumed power over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known, in October 1997 by becoming General Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party. His elevation to supreme leader, a little over three years after the death of father Kim Il Sung, was the first dynastic transfer of power in a communist-bloc state. The younger Kim also ruled the nation as Chairman of the National Defense Commission, the highest state institution in North Korea. His father, whose embalmed body is on display in Pyongyang, remains the country’s president.
Kim Jong Il successfully consolidated power after his father’s sudden death and, despite predictions to the contrary, kept the regime together. In 1994, he scored a diplomatic triumph by getting the United States to sign an agreement preserving his nuclear program. Kim then steered North Korea through a famine that was its gravest crisis since the American advance to the Chinese border during the Korean War.
The famine resulted in the deaths of as many as two million North Koreans. Since then, agricultural production has recovered, but the country still relies on food assistance from the international community, especially neighboring China. Beijing is thought to provide approximately 45 percent of the North’s foodstuffs—as well as about 90 percent of its oil and 80 percent of its consumer goods.
In July 2002, Kim sponsored structural economic changes, which failed to lift output on a sustained basis. He also permitted the creation of economic zones and tourist enclaves. The country emerged from its most recent downturn in 2008, according to the authoritative Bank of Korea in Seoul. During Kim’s rule, the North remained destitute, scoring last or near the bottom on virtually every human development index. He maintained, and perhaps enlarged, a system of concentration and death camps he inherited from his father.
The Dear Leader, as Kim was known, maintained his position within the regime by strengthening the hand of the Korean People’s Army with hissongun, or military first, policy. Approximately 1.2 million North Koreans—out of a total reported population of about 24 million—are in uniform, backed up by at least five million reservists. Although large, the military’s conventional-warfare capabilities have eroded in recent years due to the lack of resources, especially fuel for training.
As a result of the decline in military preparedness, Kim increasingly relied on the country’s unconventional weapons. The Army first detonated a nuclear device in October 2006, and a second test followed in May 2009. The country conducted three long-range missile tests—all during Kim’s tenure—and continued to add to its large stocks of chemical and biological agents. He reportedly sold nuclear weapons and missile technologies in recent years to various customers, especially Iran and Syria. Talks to disarm Kim’s state have floundered, leaving the country in possession of its small nuclear arsenal.
Kim’s death leaves the future of his family’s one-man regime in doubt. In 2009, he designated his youngest known son, Kim Jong Un, his successor. Jong Un, now about 28, may have to contend with his uncle, Jang Song Thaek; his eldest brother, Kim Jong Nam; and perhaps others for real power. Beijing is thought to favor a collective ruling group, which would undercut the position of Kim Jong Un as his father’s successor.
Kim Jong Il, according to official North Korean sources, was born on February 16, 1942 in a log cabin on sacred Mount Paektu, the highest point in Korea and the mythical birthplace of the Korean people. North Korean schools teach that his birth was accompanied by a simultaneous appearance of a bright star, a double rainbow, and a bird announcing the coming of a “general who will rule all the world.”
Most historians, however, place Kim’s birth in a Soviet military camp near Khabarovsk, in Siberia, at least one year earlier. He arrived in North Korea for the first time in November 1945 aboard a Soviet ship. He spent the Korean War outside Korea in Manchuria.
Kim is said to have had three wives, three sons and three daughters, although some reports put the number of his children at about 70, most of whom were kept in villas scattered throughout North Korea