North Korea’s Kim Jong Il presided over a semi-feudal communist dynasty, a disastrous famine, and a near economic collapse that left his country dependent on foreign food aid.
But Kim, who died on Dec. 17 at the age of 69, successfully held power for more than 17 years by imposing a climate of fear and a “military first” policy that favored the country’s armed forces.
Under Kim, whose death was officially reported on Dec. 19, North Korea developed a nuclear weapons program that has become increasingly sophisticated and a source of great concern to the United States, South Korea, Japan, and much of the world.
Kim also maintained power through a personality cult that portrayed his father Kim Il Sung as the country’s god-like “Great Leader.” After his father died in 1994, Kim Jong Il succeeded him and acquired the title “Dear Leader.”
Kim ruled over a police state that still keeps as many as 200,000 people in prison camps. But following a famine in the late 1990s that by some estimates killed up to a million people, Kim lost control over private markets that sprang up around the country.
And tens of thousands of North Koreans fled to China in order to find work and food.
Despite North Korea’s official ideology of self-reliance, or juche, the country became dependent on foreign food aid. The United States, demonized by North Korea’s state media as an enemy, was for several years a leading single food donor to the country.
And despite the country’s weakness—South Korea’s per capita income is estimated to be more than 20 times larger than that of North Korea—Kim used his nuclear weapons program to extract aid from the West.
According to North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong Il was born in 1942 in a log cabin on Mt. Paektu, the highest and most sacred mountain on the Korean peninsula. A double rainbow, it is claimed, marked the event.
But Soviet records reveal that Kim was actually born in February 1941 at a Soviet military camp while his father was in exile in the Soviet Union during World War II.
In the 1970s, Kim was chosen to head North Korea’s propaganda efforts and oversaw the creation of new operas based on his father’s writings.
In 1977, he ordered the kidnapping of a leading South Korean movie actress and later her movie director husband in order to boost the North Korean movie industry.
South Korean intelligence officers accused Kim Jong Il of ordering a 1983 bombing in Burma that killed 17 senior South Korean officials as well as the bombing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987 that killed 115.
Kim is also suspected of having overseen programs to launder money, counterfeit U.S. dollars, raise funds through drug dealing, and kidnap Japanese citizens who were later used to teach Japanese to North Korean intelligence agents.
Added to this list, U.S. experts say, has been the proliferation of missile technology and nuclear know-how to Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and possibly Burma.
According to high-level North Korean defectors, much of the money that Kim raised through the missile sales, counterfeiting, and heroin sales was used to support the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Kim, his family, and top-level supporters.
In 1996, Kim presided over one of history’s most disastrous famines. An estimated 500,000 to 1 million people died. At the time, North Korea was suffering from a gradual collapse of its economy, due partly to mismanagement and partly to the loss of trade and aid from the former Soviet Union.
After the collapse of the communist bloc in the early 1990s, North Korea was left with few friends in the world. But Kim Jong Il managed to extract concessions from the United States and South Korea by threatening to withdraw from talks aimed at ending his nuclear weapons program.
At the time of his death, Kim was chairman of North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission, general secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party, and Supreme Commander of the People’s Army, the fifth-largest army in the world.
North Korea experts frequently referred to his threat-laden negotiating style and carefully targeted military provocations as “brinksmanship.”
In early 2005, North Korea acknowledged that it possessed nuclear weapons. Late the following year, it exploded a nuclear device, followed by a second nuclear test in 2009.
After Kim suffered an apparent stroke in 2008, rumors circulated that he was incapacitated. But the North Korean dictator made a series of public appearances in 2009.
He began preparing his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his successor but also once again raised tensions on the Korean peninsula by launching a long-range rocket over the Pacific Ocean.
In March 2010, North Korea was accused of sinking a South Korean navy vessel, causing the death of 46 sailors. A team of international military experts concluded that the ship was struck by a North Korean torpedo.
Also in 2010, North Korea fired artillery at a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea. Four South Koreans were killed.
The attacks appeared aimed at strengthening Kim Jong Un’s standing with the North Korean military.
Kim Jong Un, in his late 20s and inexperienced and untested, is not expected to take full control of the country for some time, perhaps even for the next few years, according to North Korea expert and RFA commentator Andrei Lankov.
While Kim Jong Il was capable of provocative attacks, he also periodically used pragmatic diplomacy to ensure his regime’s survival.
In 2000 and 2007, he attended summit meetings with South Korean leaders. He also agreed to negotiations over his nuclear weapons program with the United States and five other nations. But in the end, the talks produced few lasting results.
Kim’s personal lifestyle and habits contrasted sharply with the hardships suffered by many living in impoverished North Korea.
Kim is known to have enjoyed gourmet food and fine French wine and cognac. He possessed a collection of thousands of U.S. and South Korean films whose viewing might have sent ordinary citizens to prison.
He sought relaxation at half a dozen villas scattered around North Korea.