In the West he was mocked for his bouffant, his pudgy belly and his platform shoes. Former U.S. President George W. Bush called him a pygmy. He was even parodied in the parody movie Team America: World Police as a dictator who walked around an empty palace singing about his loneliness.
But the ridicule could not conceal the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died at age 69 on Dec. 17, was able to maneuver his small, totalitarian nation into a force that compelled deep concern and even fear among the world’s powers. He did so at a great cost to his people, including millions who died in famines in the 1990s and hundreds of thousands who are enslaved in prison camps. But in North Korea, he was called the Dear Leader and, more recently, the Supreme Leader. He sits at the pinnacle of state-enforced adulation in North Korea, below only his father, Kim Il Sung, alongside whom he will be buried in Kumsusan Memorial Palace on Dec. 29.
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Official North Korean reports say that he died of “fatigue” while on a train ride. Kim, who reportedly feared flying and traveled by personal armored train, had suffered a stroke in 2008. He was reported in better health in recent months, having cut down on his appetite for cognac and cigars.
Like much of his life, Kim’s birth was shrouded in mystery. According to North Korean state propaganda, Kim’s birth on the sacred Mount Paektu in 1942 was accompanied by auspicious symbols including a new star in the sky, a double rainbow and a swallow. In truth, he was born in an anti-Japanese rebel camp in Siberia. After World War II, his father became the leader of Soviet-administered North Korea, which he led during its three-year war with U.S.-aligned South Korea. That war killed an estimate 4 million, and the standoff between the two sides continues today along the demilitarized zone, the most highly fortified border in the world, a legacy of a conflict that ended in a bitter truce in 1953.
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Unlike the current transition, which was only started following Kim’s 2008 stroke, he was well groomed to take power when his father died in 1994. As “the General,” one of the many names he was called by in North Korea, Kim led his country on an erratic course. He promoted attacks on South Korea, including the 1987 downing of a Korean Air flight and a 1983 attack on South Korean officials in Burma.
In the 1990s, the combination of floods and severe mismanagement caused a severe series of famines that killed as many as 2 million people and sent thousands fleeing to China. Kim toyed with economic reforms and made several visits to China to see how opening up had led to rapid growth in his country’s massive neighbor and ally. But his instinct was to clamp down on any significant development of private markets, which could compete with the power of the state. Instead, Kim relied on the ideologies of juche, or national self-reliance, and songun, or primacy of the military.
Kim had a quirky personality, the epitome of a dictator who did what he wanted because no one could tell him no. He once had a huge appetite for sushi and red wine, rich tastes made more prodigal by the neediness of so many of his countrymen. He was a movie buff with a collection of thousands of films. He ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean director and his wife in 1978. The couple was forced to help develop the North’s film industry until they escaped while on a trip abroad.
State propaganda painted a dramatic picture of Kim’s feats: he directed films, wrote several books, promoted a scientific revolution and on his first round of golf shot 11 holes in one. KCNA, the North Korean state-run news agency, wrote in a statement announcing his death that “he valued and loved the people very much and always shared weal and woe with them.”
As leader, Kim continued North Korea’s long quest for nuclear weapons, and in 2006 the country tested a small nuclear device, followed by another in 2009. Those tests further complicated the on-again, off-again denuclearization talks hosted by China, which is still pushing for a resumption of discussions. With Kim’s death and the expected handover of power to his third son, Kim Jong Un, the likelihood of an agreement seems even more remote. Kim Jong Il’s talent for flummoxing the international community in those talks was a sign of his most distinguishing trait: the ability to play a weak position to the fullest.