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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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