Kim Jong Il: The man behind North Korea’s nuclear bomb
Seoul – North Korean leader Kim Jong Il isolated his country and brought it to the brink of economic ruin. Despite the poverty and famine that have plagued his country, Kim headed one of the largest armies in the world and provoked fear across the globe by purportedly developing a nuclear arsenal.
While he was vilified in the foreign media, at home, the 69-year-old, who died on Saturday, of “fatigue” during a train journey according to North Korean media reports, has been celebrated as a godlike figure, his birthday on February 16 a national holiday.
However, other than his small stature (160 centimetres) and his trademark large glasses and khaki suit, the “Dear Leader” remained an enigmatic and contradictory figure, thanks in large part to the secretiveness of the North Korean regime.
While Kim was considered an erratic figure even before his accession to power, former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, who met him at a historic 2000 summit, characterized him as a person with a “sharp mind” who knew very well what was going on in the world.
For North Korea’s 23 million people, Kim Jong Il was known as a revolutionary and “genius of literature, art and military strategy.”
Pictures of him and his father, “Great Leader” and “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung, from whom he took over power and a personality cult, hang in nearly all public buildings and apartments.
What little is known about Kim Jong Il comes from Pyongyang’s propoganda mill. According to official lore, his birth was greeted by a double rainbow over sacred Mount Paektu in northern Korea and a new star in the heavens.
Rumours about his health abounded in 2008 when he failed to attend a ceremony commemorating the country’s 60th anniversary in August. North Korea vehemently denied South Korean intelligence reports that Kim, who was believed to suffer from high blood pressure, had a stroke.
Kim Jong Il’s private life, as well as his relationships with women and the lives of his children – there are at least four, a daughter and three sons – were taboo subjects for the national media.
In the Western media, the “Dear Father” was painted as an eccentric ladies’ man who loved fine cuisine, luxury cars, alcohol and the cinema and suffers from cardiac problems.
He was also rumoured to have had a role in planning terrorist attacks on South Korea, which Pyongyang dismissed as Western propoganda.
The course of Kim Jong Il’s policies were equally subject to speculation, even after more than a decade as leader of his Stalinist regime.
One path, however, was clear. Kim Jong Il repeatedly took on the United States, and according to the logic of the North Korean regime, a nuclear arsenal is the only security against a US attack. That policy culminated a nuclear weapons test in October 2006.
In February 2007, North Korea agreed in multilateral talks to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, a process which since then has faced several setbacks, notably over the country’s removal from a US terrorism blacklist.
After the death of his father, who had ruled North Korea from its foundation in 1948 until his sudden death in 1994, Kim Jong Il took power as the successor in the world’s first communist dynasty.
Until then, his life had been spent preparing to rule North Korea. Kim Jong Il not only took over all positions held by his deceased father, but he also skillfully assimilated his father’s personality cult and played on his father’s charisma, which he himself was lacking.
It was as if the ghost of the “Great Leader” kept reigning.
After attending school in China and studying political economy at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il began in 1964 to climb up the ranks of the Korean Workers’ Party.
By 1973, the 31-year-old Kim Jong Il held a key position in the communist party as party secretary of organisation and propaganda, and was named his father’s successor a year later.
He became a member of the Politburo and the powerful National Defence Commission in 1980, the true centre of power in North Korea. On December 24, 1991, he took the first of the three titles he held until his death – supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces
When the elder Kim died suddenly in July 1994, his son took up his other two offices. He had to wait through a three-year mourning period before being officially named general secretary of the Workers’ Party and then chairman of the Defence Commission in 1998.
Koreans across the peninsula remember the first North-South summit meeting, held in June 2000 in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung.
The meeting was hailed by both leaders as an important step toward Korean reconciliation and gave hope – at least for a time. Since then, however, the countries’ path toward rapprochement has experienced continual setbacks.
Relations deteriorated considerably when conservative President Lee Myung Bak took office in Seoul in 2008.
The two countries remain technically at war since an armistice, as no peace treaty ended the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Kim Jong Il’s death puts a big question mark over the future of both relations with the South and the international community, not to mention the country’s nuclear weapons programme, as his possible succession is as enigmatic as the departed leader himself.