SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the mercurial strongman who styled himself as a “Dear Leader” while ruling over an impoverished police state, died at 69, according to North Korean state media.
Kim was believed to have suffered from multiple chronic illnesses, but his death — reportedly from a heart attack while traveling by train Saturday morning — was sudden. He had been grooming a son to succeed him, and his death creates uncertainty about the future direction of a nation with few international friends but a nuclear weapons capability.
His foreign-educated son, Kim Jong Un, who is in his 20s and is seen by most as the next leader, is largely unknown outside North Korea, to the point that even his exact age is debated. The elder Kim had raised his son’s profile and responsibilities over the last 18 months, but North Korea’s murky inner workings make it uncertain whether that succession will take.
For nearly two decades, Kim both defied and baffled international leaders with his isolated regime’s nuclear ambition, inflammatory rhetoric and surprise attacks on South Korea, including the suspected March 2010 sinking of a southern military ship and the bombing of a South Korea-controlled island in November of that year.
On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency meeting with the nation’s top military officials and put them on high alert. But the move was seen as a formality, and there was little open sign of nervousness in Seoul at Kim’s passing.
Many South Korean experts said that China faces the greatest risk if the leadership transition does not go smoothly and predicted that Beijing would soon send high-ranking officials to show support for the younger Kim.
Kim Jong Il’s death was announced by a weeping anchorwoman on North Korean state television from the capital, Pyongyang. The diminutive leader, known for his love of women, cigars, cognac and gourmet foods, reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008 but had recently appeared in state media photos as he toured government facilities and embarked on two rare trips outside North Korea — to China and Russia.
Kim pulled his negotiators out of international nuclear talks in 2009, and followed that move by conducting an underground nuclear test. Last November, he invited foreign scientists to North Korea to witness a North Korean uranium enrichment program, which is an important step in developing nuclear weapons.
The White House released a cautiously worded statement that said officers were “closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong Il is dead.”
Outside North Korea, and perhaps inside as well, few are likely to mourn Kim’s passing. But North Korea experts warn that the post-Kim nation could be just as repressive and even more dangerous without the stability Kim’s absolute rule provided.
“There are a lot of people who will initially cheer his death until they see what comes next,” said Scott Snyder of the Washington-based Asia Foundation.
Kim, who came to power in 1994 upon the death of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, led one of the world’s most enduring dictatorships, a repressive regime that has long defied predictions of its demise. Against the odds, it survived into the 21st century while its people went hungry and its allies drifted away to pursue globalization and reform.
Kim Jong Il remained to the end an unrepentant communist, refusing to liberalize North Korea’s economy even as his people became some of the world’s poorest, with millions dying of starvation and tens of thousands imprisoned on charges of political crimes. While rival South Korea became one of the world’s wealthiest nations, many in the North have earned less than a dollar a month.
In 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. Kim repeatedly used the threat of nuclear weapons to exact political concessions and economic aid. At the same time, he ignored pressure to release an estimated 200,000 citizens kept in a gulag of prison camps, some for transgressions as minor as failing to keep portraits of Kim and his father on their walls.
“I loathe Kim Jong Il,” former President George W. Bush once told journalist Bob Woodward, calling him a “pygmy” and a “spoiled child.”
Kim was born in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, where his father was stationed with other Korean and Chinese guerrillas being trained by the Soviet army to fight the Japanese. The North Korean propaganda machine later claimed his birth took place on Mount Paektu, a sacred peak in Korean folklore, and that it was heralded by a double rainbow. It was only the first of many outlandish legends in a cult of personality that also credited him with writing dozens of books and operas and making 11 holes-in-one in a single round of golf.
Kim’s early life was marked by tragedy and loneliness. When he was 5, his younger brother drowned in a pond. His mother died two years later. After his father remarried, he had a rocky relationship with his stepmother and his younger stepbrothers. Although the first born, he did not take for granted his eventual succession and worked hard to ingratiate himself with his powerful father.
Kim stayed close to his father’s side, following him to official functions, even helping him put on his shoes, according to Hwang Jang-yop, a top North Korean academic and Kim family adviser who defected to South Korea.
“He was jealous and cunning,” Hwang wrote in a memoir. “I could see that he craved power.”
In 1964, Kim graduated with a major in political economy from North Korea’s top school, predictably called Kim Il Sung University, and went to work in the propaganda section of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. Much of his work involved creating the hagiography that would elevate his father and by extension himself to the status of demigods.
He borrowed heavily from Christian imagery (nobody was any the wiser since the Bible was banned in North Korea, along with other religious literature) to create the myth of a holy family destined to rule. He was credited with designing the little red badge bearing a portrait of his father that North Koreans to this day are required to wear on their lapels.
Kim eventually became director of the party’s bureau of agitation and propaganda. The position gave him an excuse to get involved with one of his great passions: cinema. He expanded North Korea’s film studios and wrote a book, or at least had one published under his name. In that 1973 tome, “On the Art of Cinema,” he espoused the theory that “revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution.”
Kim’s obsession with cinema led to a bizarre episode in 1978 in which he ordered the kidnapping of a famous South Korean actress and her husband, a film director, to improve North Korea’s film studios. The couple, Choi Eun Hee and Shin Sang Ok, made films for Kim for eight years and won his trust enough to be sent to Europe for a film festival, where they escaped and returned to South Korea.
The pair had covert tape recordings of their conversations with Kim and later wrote a memoir containing one of the few firsthand accounts of his personality. They described a man who could be alternately imperious and self-deprecating, once quipping to Choi about his height, “Small as a midget’s turd, aren’t I?”
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, tales of Kim’s eccentricities spread throughout the world. Defectors told of wild drinking parties and naked dancers. Some of the stories were hyped by South Korea’s fiercely anti-communist propaganda machine, but many were corroborated.
Kim imported $650,000 worth of Hennessy’s finest cognac in a single year. His appetite for women and drink was exceeded by a love for the finest foods. He hired for his private kitchens a sushi chef from Tokyo and a pizza chef from Italy, both of whom wrote accounts of their experiences.
At the time, North Korea was in the midst of a famine that would eventually kill as many as 2 million people, up to 10 percent of the population, and leave many of them permanently stunted.
Homeless, starving children became a common sight at North Korean train stations. Kim nonetheless sent couriers on shopping excursions to buy rice cakes in Tokyo, mangoes in Thailand, cheese in France.
In later life, he gave up heavy drinking on the advice of his doctors, switching from cognac to red wine, but his epicurean tastes persisted. On a train trip through Russia in 2001, live lobsters and French wine were flown in to stops along the route, according to a memoir by a Russian official who made the trip.
Kim apparently saw no contradiction between the hardships of ordinary North Koreans and his own indulgences. While regular citizens could be sent to prison camps for watching South Korean or U.S. films, Kim maintained a personal library containing about 20,000 movies. Visiting delegations knew the most desired gifts to bring the leader were classic American films. During a 1994 trip, former President Jimmy Carter introduced Kim to “The Godfather” and “Gone With the Wind.”
Jerrold M. Post, a former psychological profiler for the CIA, diagnosed Kim as having malignant narcissism, a personality disorder characterized by “extreme grandiosity and self-absorption.”
“There is no capacity to empathize with others,” Post wrote in a study of Kim. “There is no constraint of conscience. ... Kim’s only loyalty is to himself and his own survival.”
By the 1980s, Kim had become increasingly involved in intelligence and military matters, including, some say, terrorist attacks. South Korean intelligence officials believe he orchestrated a 1983 bombing in Yangon, Myanmar, that killed 17 visiting South Korean officials, as well as the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air passenger jet.
In the early 1990s, he was named first deputy chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. He allocated ever larger shares of the national budget to the development of missiles and nuclear weapons. A micromanager by nature, he made personal visits to research facilities to oversee the work.
“Kim Jong Il didn’t care if he bankrupted the rest of the country. He saw the missiles and nuclear weapons as the only way to maintain power,” Kim Dok-hong, a former North Korean official who defected with Hwang, said in a 2006 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
By the time his father died in 1994, Kim had been helping to run North Korea behind the scenes for nearly two decades, and the succession took place without a hitch. But the transition coincided with the collapse of North Korea’s economy, and Kim did not enjoy the genuine popularity of his father.
Any hopes that Kim, being a younger man, would be more reform-minded were quickly dashed. If anything, he tried to turn back the clock on his father’s halting latter-day efforts toward liberalization. Some North Koreans even whispered that Kim had had his father killed to stop the reforms.
Perhaps aware of his own lack of charisma, Kim kept himself subordinate to the memory of his father. To this day, Kim Il Sung holds the title of president.
An even more reclusive figure than his father, Kim refused to give interviews, appeared infrequently in public and ventured outside North Korea only a few times in his life. He kept abreast of world events through the Internet (banned for ordinary citizens) with the aid of interpreters since the only foreign language he spoke was the Russian of his childhood.
In his last years, Kim did make some attempts to end his country’s isolation and poverty. In 2000, he held a landmark summit in Pyongyang with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, but he reneged on a promise to reciprocate with a visit to Seoul. That year, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the highest-level American official to visit Pyongyang since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Albright later wrote that she found Kim to be an “intelligent man who knew what he wanted. He was isolated, not uninformed. Despite his country’s wretched condition, he didn’t seem a desperate or even a worried man. He seemed confident.”
The rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang faltered when Bush took office and condemned North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration in October 2008 removed the country from a blacklist of “terror-sponsoring” nations in return for an agreement allowing limited inspections of nuclear sites there.
Kim’s personal life was marked by disappointment. He lived for many years with a divorced actress, Song Hye Rim, the mother of his oldest son, Jong Nam, but they reportedly did not marry because Kim feared his father’s disapproval. Song suffered from psychological problems and died in exile in Moscow.
Kim was reportedly devastated when Ko Yong Hi, the mother of his two younger sons, died of breast cancer in 2004. He also has a daughter with a woman who was his official wife but with whom he is believed never to have lived.
Details of Kim’s personal life are sketchy. He rarely appeared in public with family members, but accounts from high-ranking defectors portrayed him as a doting father and partner who showered his loved ones with attention and kindness as though to compensate for his own father’s distance.
“He is really a sensitive and arty type who ended up by birth floating through this world that is pure evil,” said Michael Breen, author of “Kim Jong Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader,” one of the few English-language biographies of Kim.
©2011 the Los Angeles Times
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