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. 

Kyodo News/AP
North Korean women cry after learning of the death of their leader Kim Jong Il on Monday, Dec. 19 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim died on Saturday, Dec. 17, North Korean state media announced Monday.

Kim Jong-il’s death at the age of 69 ended an era of profligacy and harshness that included reports of both his wild living in his many mansions and stories from defectors of extreme cruelty in a gulag system to which 200,000 people were constantly consigned. 

The report of the demise of the man known as North Korea’s “dear leader” – who reportedly imported cognac along with Swedish hostesses and dined on fine food dished up by a Japanese chef who dedicated a special brand of sushi to him – confirmed speculation that he had been seriously ill for awhile.

Kim Jong-il was born in 1941 or 1942 near the Soviet Siberian city of Khabarosk while his father, the long-ruling Kim Il-sung, was an officer in the Red Army. However, most North Koreans never heard the truth about Kim Jong-il's origins. They were told that he was born in a cabin on Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean peninsula, straddling the North Korean-Chinese border. As he was born, rainbows appeared in the heavens, according to the story put out by the propaganda machine that his father built over the years after he was sent by the Russians to Korea on a merchant ship following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

Kim Jong-il was widely reported to have suffered a stroke in August 2008 and afterward disappeared from public view for several months while recovering. In the past two years his health appeared to greatly improve, and he went on regular inspection tours of military installations, factories, farms, and markets, generally accompanied by his son Kim Jong-un, who is poised to succeed him.

In fact, Kim Jong-il was last photographed on such a tour two days before his death, looking in good health – prompting speculation that he might actually have been assassinated.

Pyongyang took two days to announce the death,” says Han Sung-joo, who was foreign minister when North Korea and the US agreed in Geneva on a plan for the North to halt its nuclear program in exchange for construction of two nuclear energy reactors. “They are trying to put up a face that is orderly and united.”

But, “we are not sure whether it was foul play or natural,” says Mr. Han, adding that “I don’t think North Korea was prepared” and “I don’t believe we can rule out anything.”

A female television announcer dressed in traditional black Hanbok attire burst into tears on Pyongyang television when she repeated the announcement that he had died “from fatigue and hard work” that caused a heart attack.

Both before and after he took over full power following his father's death in July 1994 – in the midst of a nuclear crisis that would be repeated throughout his 17 years in power – he was credited with achievements that went far beyond credibility.

Among the most dubious was the claim that he shot a hole in one on his first swing at a golf course and that he repeated the feat on numerous occasions. He also, in his younger days, was extremely interested in developing the North Korean film industry – so much so that he ordered the kidnapping in 1978 of a South Korean actress and her director husband from Hong Kong to work on North Korean films. The pair escaped to the US embassy in Vienna in 1986 after he allowed them to go there to attend a film festival.

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.

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.

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