The Death of North Korea’s Volatile Dictator

by M-Gillies

Kim Jong-il died on December 17, 2011 at the age of 69.

Reclusive and eccentric, North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-il was a man who liked to challenge the rules. For 17 years he ruled over the isolated and paranoid country of North Korea, keeping it at the edge of starvation and utter economic collapse, banishing Gulag citizens deemed disloyal and further turned the country into a nuclear weapons state that left neighboring South Korea on edge with North Korea’s unpredictable weapons testing. Known as “Dear Leader” and “the great successor to the revolutionary cause” Kim held the world in reputed fear with repeated threats to South Korea and the United States during his longtime pursuit of a nuclear weapon aresenal.

A caricature of the Hollywood stereotype of a post-cold war dictator, Kim was a short and round man sporting elevator shoes, oversized sunglasses, a bouffant hair-style and trademark military jumpsuits. While his early life has been shrouded in a veil of mystery, tales of his youth as a man living a playboy lifestyle and indulging in lavish meals during a time when his country was starving made him a controversial figure. Derided and denounced, many Westerners saw him as an unstable and erratic dictator, whose consistent policy of swinging wildly between confrontation and threats against South Korea and the United States, to periods in which North Korea negotiated closer ties to the opposing countries.

Still, Kim’s portrayal as a revolutionary leader was held in high-esteem in North Korea, while former President, George W. Bush called him a “pygmy” and included the country as part of the “axis of evil”. Even South Korea depicted Kim as a red devil with horns and fangs in children’s books.

But for every impression made upon the man, his life has always been one of clandestine lore. As North Korean legend has it, Kim was born in a log cabin on Mt. Paekdu, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula, and is said to be the most cherished of holy sites. His supposed birth in 1942 was prophesied by a swallow and heralded in the heavens with the sky brightened by a brilliant new star and a pair of rainbows. However, much like Mark Twain’s death had been greatly exaggerated, the birth of Kim was grandiosely glamourized.

It was during World War II, Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, had been exiled from Japanese-occupied Korea for actively resisting imperialism from the Japanese. A family built on nationalistic ideology, Kim’s father was stationed in the Soviet Union as a commander of the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade, which saw many of its forces composed of Chinese and Korean exiles engaging in reconnaissance missions against the Japanese troops. It was at an army base near Khabarovsk in the Soviet far east, not far from the border shared by the two countries that Kim was officially born one year earlier than reports previously stated.

Soon after his graduation in 1964, Kim rose through the ranks of the Korean Workers’ Party. Throughout his years, he oversaw the Propaganda and Agitation department, giving firm instructions that the party’s monolithic ideological message be communicated constantly by writers, artists and officials in the media. This included a revolutionary change in Korean’s fine arts.

Said to be an avid film buff and a fan of Elizabeth Taylor, Kim ordered the kidnapping of South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978 as a means of establishing a film industry in his country. However, after failed escape attempts, the director and wife were able to seek political asylum at the United States Embassy in 1988.

Just as Kim Il-sung was known as the “Great Leader” Kim Jong-il was hailed as the “fearless leader” and “the great successor of the revolutionary cause” as a means of establishing a cult personality.

Following the death of his father in July 1994, Kim Jong-il inherited an impoverished country. His only option for taking North Korea out of post-cold-war era was in his nuclear weapons program. With the office of president abolished, Kim was bestowed the titles of General Secretary of the Workers’ Party and Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

As the years passed, Kim’s health began to wane. In 2008, reports had surfaced that Kim had possibly suffered a stroke. It was during this time that North Korea was being closely watched. Due to Kim’s volatile nature, the country’s possession of nuclear weapons, it’s precarious economic condition and the lack of an apparent successor, North Korea seemed on the verge of a leadership crisis.

With his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam exiled to Macau after falling from his father’s graces in 2001 when he was caught sneaking into Japan to visit Tokyo’s Disneyland on forged Dominican Republic passports, and Kim’s second son, Kim Jong-chol deemed too effeminate by his father, Kim Jong-Un, the youngest son, was soon selected as the successor.

Though, it has only been the last two years that North Korea has been grooming Kim Jong-un, uncertainties over the son’s abilities as a leader are wary at best. Unlike his father who had been groomed for decades to succeed North Korea’s founder King Il-sung, Kim Jung-un is virtually an unknown and much like his father, the life of Kim Jong-un is a haze of mystery. Little is known about his life, except that he was made a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party in 2009. Since then, it became apparent that Kim Jong-un was successor apparent.

With the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and the sudden death of Kim Jong-il, a potential trigger of massive crisis is being anticipated, particularly with the pent-up power struggle between the North Korean political elite, the bureaucracy and the military.

However, for 69 years, Kim Jong-il has been idolized by North Koreans. A genius of 10,000 talents, the lore of Kim’s presence has always seemed bombastically elated. Claiming to have written 1,500 books during his four years attending university; shooting 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf, and assuming godly powers of controlling the weather based on his mood, Kim Jung-il’s reputation was that of self-righteousness.

To commemorate his death, North Korea has declared a national mourning period from the day of Kim Jong-il’s death to December 29. During this time, a funeral service is scheduled to be held in Pyongyang on December 29, following a “national meeting of mourning” which will take place the next day and see all North Koreans pay a three-minutes of silence as a tribute to Kim Jung-il.

Kim Jong-il’s body will further be placed in the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang where his father’s remains currently reside in a glass case for public viewing.

Read more:

Obituary – Kim Jong-il | NYTimes.com

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