Kim also sought to build up the country's nuclear arms arsenal, leading to North Korea's first nuclear test, an underground blast conducted in October 2006. Another test came in 2009, prompting U.N. sanctions.
Alarmed, regional leaders negotiated a disarmament-for-aid pact that the North signed in 2007 and began implementing later that year. The process has since stalled, though diplomats are working to restart negotiations.
Following the famine, the number of North Koreans fleeing the country rose dramatically, with many telling tales of hunger, political persecution and rights abuses. North Korea is estimated to hold 150,0000 to 200,000 people in political prisons; the government denies operating any such camps.
Kim often blamed the U.S. for his country's troubles and his regime routinely derides Washington-allied South Korea as a puppet of the Western superpower.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush described Kim as a tyrant. "Look, Kim Jong Il is a dangerous person. He's a man who starves his people. He's got huge concentration camps. And ... there is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon," Bush said in 2005.
Defectors from North Korea describe Kim as an eloquent and tireless orator, primarily to the military units that form the base of his support.
He also made numerous trips to factories and other sites to offer what North Korea calls "field guidance." As recently as last week, the North's news agency reported on trips to a supermarket and a music and dance center.
"In order to run the center in an effective way, he said, it is important above all to collect a lot of art pieces including Korean music and world famous music," the Korean Central News Agency story read in part.
The world's best glimpse of the man came in 2000, when a liberal South Korean government's conciliatory "sunshine" policy toward the North culminated in the first-ever summit between the two Koreas. A second summit was held in 2007 with then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
Standing 5-foot-3, Kim wore platform shoes and sported a permed bouffant. His trademark attire of jumpsuits and sunglasses was mocked in the American film "Team America: World Police," a movie populated by puppets that was released in 2004.
Kim was said to have wide interests, including professional basketball, cars and foreign films. He reportedly produced several films, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge.
A South Korean film director claims Kim had him and his movie star wife kidnapped in the late 1970s, spiriting them to North Korea to make movies for a decade before they managed to escape during a trip to Austria.
Kim rarely traveled abroad and then only by train because of an alleged fear of flying, once heading all the way by luxury rail car to Moscow, indulging in his taste for fine food along the way.
One account of Kim's lavish lifestyle came from Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian presidential envoy who wrote the book "The Orient Express" about Kim's train trip through Russia in July and August 2001.
Pulikovsky, who accompanied the North Korean leader, said Kim's 16-car private train was stocked with crates of French wine. Live lobsters were delivered in advance to stations.
A Japanese cook later claimed he was Kim's personal sushi chef for a decade, writing that Kim had a wine cellar stocked with 10,000 bottles, and that, besides sushi, Kim ate shark's fin soup — a rare delicacy — weekly.
"His banquets often started at midnight and lasted until morning. The longest lasted for four days," the chef, who goes by the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, was quoted as saying.
Kim is believed to have curbed his indulgent ways in recent years and looked slimmer in more recent video footage aired by North Korea's state-run broadcaster.
Disputing accounts that Kim was "peculiar," former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright characterized Kim as intelligent and well-informed, saying the two had wide-ranging discussions during her visits to Pyongyang when Bill Clinton was U.S. president. "I found him very much on top of his brief," she said.
Kim's marital status wasn't clear but he is believed to have married once and had at least three other companions. He had at least three sons with two women, as well as a daughter by a third.
His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who is about 40, is believed to have fallen out of favor with his father after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001 saying he wanted to visit Disney's Tokyo resort.
His other sons include likely successor Kim Jong Un and the heir-apparent's older brother, Kim Jong Chol. Their mother reportedly died several years ago.
Lee reported from Seoul, South Korea.
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