Kim Jong-il's death brings end to era of cruelty, mystery
'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il's death ends 17 years of leadership defined by oppression, bizarre stories of grandeur, and tensions with the West over its nuclear program.
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Kim Jong-il rose to power initially as general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, long before the death of his father. But it was his positions as chairman of the national defense commission and commander of the armed forces that he used to exercise his unquestioned rule over his people and also to confront South Korea and the United States.Skip to next paragraph
His legacy was his program for turning North Korea into a nuclear power while developing short-range, mid-range and finally long-range missiles with a potential to someday reach targets as distant as Alaska and Hawaii.
Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, reported that North Korea tested a missile Monday, probably before the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death. North Korea exported short and mid-range missiles to clients ranging from Libya under Muammar Qaddafi to Iran, Syria, and Yemen.
North Korea’s claim to be a nuclear power rested on underground nuclear tests conducted in October 2006 and again in May 2009. The first test was believed to have been a disappointment, but the second demonstrated the North’s ability to explode a nuclear device successfully. The North Korean missile tests came during an impasse in six-party talks hosted by China beginning in 2005 and last held in Beijing in December 2008.
Nonetheless, Kim Jong-il raised high hopes for rapprochement on the Korean peninsula when he hosted South Korea’s president, Kim Da-jung, at the first North-South summit in June 2000. The summit produced a document committing the two leader to bringing about reconciliation beginning with reunions of members of the millions of families divided by the Korean War.
The spirit of the summit evaporated, however, with the revelation in October 2002 that North Korea also was working on a program for developing nuclear warheads from highly enriched uranium. North Korea had suspended production of warheads with plutonium at their core under the 1994 agreement.
Kim Jong-il also hosted Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, at a summit in October 2007, but North Korea’s hostility grew after the conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected South Korean president two months later and quickly cut off food aid to North Korea, saying the North should first stop its nuclear program. American nuclear physicist Sigfried Hecker, after seeing the uranium facility, said he was “stunned” at how advanced the program was.
The tragic downside was that North Korea’s nuclear program cost billions of dollars while severely sapping the economy. While Kim Jong-il appeared to sometimes entertain the idea of limited economic reforms, he basically could not tolerate free enterprise while many North Koreans survived only by clandestine free market activities.
North Korean quality of life reached its lowest level in the mid-1990s, when the country suffered a famine that cost as many as 2 million lives from starvation and disease. North Korea since then has gone through periods of deep economic distress. Millions remain underfed and suffering from disease while the country maintains a military machine of well over one million troops.
Kim Jong-il’s dream, however, was to build North Korea as “a strong and prosperous nation” in time for a nationwide celebration next April marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father.