Obituary: Kim Jong-il

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The BBC's James Robbins reports on the life of North Korea's Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il was one of the world's most reclusive and enigmatic leaders, presiding over a secretive and internationally isolated country.

The world's only hereditary communist ruler, he was criticised for flagrant human rights abuses and for threatening the stability of the region by pursuing a nuclear weapons programme and testing long-range missiles.

When he assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, very little was known about Kim Jong-il. He had seldom been seen in public.

He was said to have personally ordered the shooting down of a South Korean airliner in 1987.

The South Korean media portrayed him as a vain man, a playboy with a bouffant hairstyle and sporting platform shoes in order to appear taller.

Anecdotal evidence suggests he was not as stupid as his southern neighbours made out, though his over-fondness for food and drink was probably true.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian emissary who travelled with Mr Kim by train across Russia, reported that the North Korean leader had live lobsters air-lifted to the train each day which he ate with silver chopsticks.

The two men, he said, shared champagne with a bevy of female companions of "utmost beauty and intelligence".

He was seen draining 10 glasses of wine during his 2000 summit with then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and is known to have a taste for Hennessy VSOP cognac.

Personality cult

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Kim Jong-il became an international pariah

Those who met him say he was well-informed and he was said to have followed assiduously international events.

Some saw him as a clever manipulator, willing to take risks to underpin his regime.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that Kim Jong-il was "very much on top of his brief".

His image in North Korea was one of a hero in the typical manner of the dictator's cult of personality.

Official North Korean accounts say he was born in a log cabin and the event was reportedly marked by a double rainbow and a bright star in the sky.

They say he wrote six operas in two years and designed one of Pyongyang's most famous landmarks.

In fact, according to outside experts, Mr Kim was born near the Russian city of Khabarovsk where his guerrilla father was receiving Soviet military support.

Subsequently, the young Kim spent the Korean War in China.

Like most of North Korea's elite, he graduated from Kim Il-sung University.

In 1975, he acquired the title Dear Leader and five years later joined the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party and was given special responsibility for art and culture.

In 1978, he ordered the abduction of a South Korean film director, Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee.

They were held separately for five years before being reunited at a party banquet.

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Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Kim Jong-il was on top of his brief

They said afterwards that Mr Kim had apologised for the kidnappings and asked them to make movies for him. They completed seven before escaping to the West in 1986.

Kim Jong-il's love of the cinema bordered on the obsessive. He is said to have collected a library of 20,000 Hollywood movies and to have even written a book on the cinema. Elizabeth Taylor was believed to have been his pin-up.

He is also believed to have visited the state film company hundreds of times and produced a patriotic 100-part serial on North Korean history.


In 1991, he was elected supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. Analysts believe he was given the position to counter potential resistance to an eventual succession.

Image caption,
The two Korean leaders embrace in 2000

By now, North Korea's rigid centrally-controlled economy had slipped into an ever-deepening economic crisis exacerbated by the collapse of the country's main trading partner, the Soviet Union.

Trade dried up and the regime even ran out of fuel for factories and offices.

Natural disasters led to crop failures and hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. Potential unrest was quashed by the authorities.

This grave state of affairs continued after Kim succeeded his father on his death in 1994. However, Kim Jong-il did relieve the crisis somewhat by appealing for international assistance, particularly from China.

He also visited China several times, and was known to be interested in how communist China had adapted its socialist principles to a market economy.

After visiting Beijing and Shanghai in 2000 and 2001, North Korea began experimenting, on a small scale, with private entrepreneurship.

He also moved some way to improving relations with South Korea.

In June 2000, he met the South's leader, Kim Dae-jung, the first inter-Korean summit since the Korean War in 1953 which divided the nation.

The summit's main achievement was to increase links between the states, including allowing the reunion of families separated by the Korean War. More than a million Koreans were affected in this way.

Missiles and rumours

In August 2008 a report appeared in a Japanese news magazine claiming that Kim Jong-il had died in 2003 and that his supposed public appearances had, in fact, been undertaken by body doubles.

A month later US intelligence sources claimed Kim had suffered a stroke, following reports that he had failed to appear at a military parade to mark the country's 60th anniversary.

Amid rumour and counter rumour the North Korean authorities released a video in April 2009 which claimed to show Kim making official visits to factories during November and December 2008.

He made a dramatic appearance in August 2009 when former US President, Bill Clinton, flew to North Korea to secure the release of two American journalists, who had been arrested after allegedly illegally entering North Korea in March.

After meeting Mr Clinton it was reported that Kim Jong-il had agreed to pardon the two journalists and they returned to the United States.

Kim Jong-il's devoted commitment to his father's particular Marxist-Leninist vision was fundamental.

His insistence on maintaining the North's nuclear weapons programme in the face of international criticism, and the development and testing of long-range missiles capable of hitting American cities, cast Kim Jong-il as both a pariah and a maverick, and ensured that his country remained isolated.

His death at the age of 69 on 17 December 2011 was announced on state television.

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