PYONGYANG, North Korea — Even as the world changed around him, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il remained firmly in control, ruling absolutely at home and keeping the rest of the world on edge through a nuclear weapons program.
Inheriting power from his father in 1994, he led his nation through a devastating famine while frustrating the U.S. and other global powers with an on-again, off-again approach to talks on giving up nuclear arms in return for energy and other assistance. Kim was one of the last remnants of a Cold War-era that ended years earlier in most other countries.
His death was announced Monday by state television two days after he died. North Korea's news agency reported that he had died at 8:30 a.m. Saturday after having a heart attack on a train, adding that he had been treated for cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases for a long time. He was 69.
Kim, who reputedly had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country documented by state media.
His longtime pursuit of nuclear weapons and his military's repeated threats to South Korea and the U.S. stoked worries that fighting might break out again on the Korean peninsula or that North Korea might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist movements. The Korean War ended more than 50 years ago in a cease-fire, and the two sides remain technically in a state of war.
Kim Jong Il, who took power after the death of his father, unveiled his third son as his successor in September 2010, putting the twenty-something Kim Jong Un in high-ranking posts. On Monday, the North Korean news agency dubbed the son a "great successor" as the country rallied around him.
Few firm facts are available when it comes to North Korea, and not much is clear about Kim Jong Il, the man known as the "Dear Leader."
North Korean legend has it that Kim was born on Mount Paektu, one of Korea's most cherished sites, in 1942, a birth heralded in the heavens by a pair of rainbows and a brilliant new star. Soviet records, however, indicate he was born in Siberia in 1941.
His father, Kim Il Sung, is still revered as the founder of North Korea. The elder Kim fought for independence from Korea's colonial ruler, Japan, from a base in Russia for years. He returned to Korea in 1945, emerging as a communist leader and becoming North Korea's first leader in 1948.
He meshed Stalinist ideology with a cult of personality that encompassed him and his son. Their portraits hang in every building in North Korea, and every dutiful North Korean wears a Kim Il Sung lapel pin.
Kim Jong Il, a graduate of Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University, was 33 when his father anointed him his eventual successor.
Even before he took over, there were signs the younger Kim would maintain — and perhaps exceed — his father's hard-line stance.
South Korea has accused Kim of masterminding a 1983 bombing that killed 17 South Korean officials visiting Burma, now known as Myanmar. In 1987, the bombing of a Korean Air flight killed all 115 people on board; a North Korean agent who confessed to planting the device said Kim had ordered the downing of the plane.
When Kim came to power in 1994, he had been groomed for 20 years to become leader. He eventually took the posts of chairman of the National Defense Commission, commander of the Korean People's Army and head of the ruling Worker's Party. His father remained as North Korea's "eternal president."
He continued his father's policy of "military first," devoting much of the country's scarce resources to its troops — even as his people suffered from a prolonged famine — and built the world's fifth-largest military.
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