Kim Jong-Il through the years

As the leader of North Korea for the past 17 years, Kim Jong-Il possessed a cult-like status within the country, but outside of it was known as one of the world’s most repressive leaders in history.

His father Kim Il-Sung founded North Korea when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin anointed him as the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea following World War II. Kim Jung-Il was a young boy when the Communist North invaded the American backed South, which led to the Korean War in 1950.

When the war ended, he became fully involved in his father’s philosophy of “juche” meaning self-reliance – the root of North Korea’s reclusive ways.

Gradually, he was groomed to take over for his father, making public appearances to enthusiastic crowds. Kim Il Sung formally announced he would be his successor in 1980.

In 1991 he was made commander-in-chief of  North Korea’s powerful army, the final step in his long grooming process.

When Kim Il Sung died three years later, many predicted the imminent collapse of North Korea. The country had recently lost its closest allies when China moved toward a market-based system and the Soviet bloc fell from power.

And shortly after he took over for his father in 1994, the country endured a severe famine caused by poor harvests and ill-judged economic reforms that left an estimated two million people dead.

Although he honoured his father’s legacy, he abandoned his unique form of Stalinism in favor of the more militant “Red Banner” policy he introduced in 1996.

Some say that Kim Jong-Il played a bad hand of cards with great skill, receiving billions of dollars in international aide in the 1990s after leaving the door open to new alliances — but doing nothing in return, and even sending test missiles over Japan in 1999.

He was known for his obsession with movies, which led to a kidnapping incident in 1978 of South Korean actress Choi En-hui and her director husband Shin Sang-ok. After escaping in 1986, they said Kim Jong Il imprisoned Shin for four years for a failed escape attempt and held Choi under house arrest. He forced them to work in the North Korean film industry, paying them well while keeping them in the gilded cage of his social and artistic circles.

There seemed to be a warming of relations between North and South Korea in 2000 with the first ever summit meeting between Kim Jong Il and the former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

The thawing didn’t last long. In 2002 President George W. Bush labeled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address, which led to North Korea withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006, which added extra urgency to the six-party talks aimed at dealing with their nuclear program.

By 2007, Kim Jong-Il finally agreed to disable his nuclear reactor in return for fuel and better relations with the United States, but despite literally blowing up the reactors cooling tower, he backtracked afterwards. In 2008 he halted the disabling of the plutonium-producing plants after a stalemate over verification measures.

Outside of North Korea he will be remembered as being one of the most brutal dictators in history, responsible for spending about 25 per cent of his country’s gross national product on the military while many of his people went hungry.

Yet inside his country, where citizens live within a strict hierarchical system — closed off from outside influence and having been through decades of political socialization — Kim Jong-Il is thought to be viewed positively by most as a superior leader and and a man of high morality.

His third son Kim Jong-un was unveiled as his father’s successor just over a year ago. Little is known about him beyond him being approximately 29 years old, educated in Switzerland, and the son of Kim Jong-Il’s reportedly favorite wife – the late Ko Yong-hui.

Sources: CNN, BBC


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