Kim Jong Il became the supreme leader of North Korea in 1994, upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, who had ruled the country continuously since 1948. Kim Jong Il was born February 16, 1941 in Siberia, Russia, while his father was serving in the Soviet 88th Brigade, which was composed of Chinese and Korean exiles. Kim’s official North Korean biography, however, states that he was born in February 1942, in a log cabin on North Korea’s highest mountain, Mt. Paektu — his birth attended simultaneously by a double rainbow and a radiant star in the heavens. The elder Kim returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in September 1945, after the end of World War II, and Kim Jong Il and his mother joined him there two months later. In 1949 Kim Jong Il’s mother died in childbirth.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim’s father sent the boy, for safety, to Manchuria for the duration of the conflict. In 1964 the 23-year-old Kim graduated from Kim Il Sung University and thereafter held a variety of posts in the communist Korean Workers Party (KWP). Within a few years he became his father’s secretary, and in September 1973 he was named Party Secretary in charge of Organization, Propaganda, and Agitation, the government agency responsible for control and censorship of the media. In this role, Kim mandated that writers, artists, filmmakers, and officials in the media constantly communicate the KWP’s monolithic ideological message in their work. In 1974 Kim Il Sung officially announced that Kim Jong Il would succeed him as the ruler of North Korea when he, the elder Kim, could no longer perform the duties required of the President.
Kim Jong Il’s influence over the daily operations of the KWP grew steadily with each passing year. By October 1980, he held senior posts in the Politburo, the Military Commission, and the Party Secretariat. In February 1982 he was made a member of the Seventh Supreme People’s Assembly and was the second most influential individual in the nation.
In 1983 South Korea accused Kim of having ordered a Rangoon, Burma bombing that took the lives of 17 visiting South Korean officials. Four years later, South Korea claimed that Kim had masterminded the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, which killed all 115 passengers on November 29th of that year. Kim Hyon Hui, the North Korean agent who planted a bomb in Flight 858, stated that Kim Jong Il had personally ordered the operation.
In 1990-91 Kim Jong Il was named commander of North Korea’s armed forces, though he had no military experience. In 1992, Kim Il Sung publicly stated that his son now had authority over all internal affairs in North Korea. When Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack on July 8, 1994. Kim Jong Il officially assumed control of the Party and state apparatus. Many insiders doubted his ability to serve as head of state, given his reputation, according to South Korean accounts, as an impulsive, self-absorbed, heavy-drinking playboy fixated on his appearance, donning permed hair and inserting lifts in his shoes to raise his diminutive five-foot-three stature. Moreover, rumors abounded that he had frequently ordered the kidnappings of young women in Japan and elsewhere, whom he forced to service him sexually in several luxury villas that he owned. Kim is reported to have fathered thirteen illegitimate children during the course of his life.
In 1997 Kim was officially named the leader of the ruling KWP (the party to which 80 percent of all North Korean government officials belonged). He was unable, however, to duplicate his father’s status as a figure so solemnly revered by an adoring nation. The elder Kim, by means of political omnipotence and his complete control of all media, had created a cult of personality wherein he was viewed as a divine, paternal figure who came to be widely known as the “Great Leader,” a title whose majesty would be assigned to him even after his death, theoretically in perpetuity. North Korea’s 1998 Constitution officially declared Kim Il Sung the “Eternal President of the Republic,” and the post of President was officially abolished on grounds that no one would ever again be worthy of sharing the title of so extraordinary an individual.
Thus, when Kim Jong Il succeeded his father as the highest official in the nation, he held several official titles — the most important being General Secretary of the KWP, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army — but was not referred to as the President of North Korea. Though his countrymen’s veneration of him was not as pronounced as the reverence they had directed toward his father, Kim Jong Il nonetheless developed a formidable personality cult of his own, and North Koreans commonly referred to him as their “Dear Leader” — an appellation first assigned to him in the early 1980s. The state-controlled Korean media alternately characterized him also as the nation’s “peerless leader” and “the great successor to the revolutionary cause.”
During his reign, Kim continued his father’s personal philosophy of Juche, a code of diplomatic and economic “self-reliance” closely related to Stalinism, which the father had instituted as a check against excessive Soviet or Communist Chinese influence on his nation. In the 1980s, Juche resulted in North Korea severing most of its trading ties, including ties with China and the USSR. Concurrently, a state-controlled economy impeded agricultural production.
North Korea suffered through many hard times during the early years of Kim’s reign. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country had lost its principal trading partner. Its trade options were further compromised when China normalized relations with South Korea in 1992. And cataclysmic floods in 1995-96, followed by drought in 1997, crippled North Korea’s food production.
North Korea experienced a devastating famine that peaked between 1995-97. It resulted not only from the aforementioned floods and drought, but also from decades of economic mismanagement, poor resource allocation, abysmal industrial and agricultural productivity, the disappearance of previously lucrative markets following the Soviet Union’s demise, and the government’s massive military expenditures. This famine claimed an estimated 2 to 3 million lives (out of a population of perhaps 22 million) and forced the country to rely heavily on international aid to feed its population while Kim continued to funnel all available funds into the maintenance of his million-man army. The few visitors who managed to make their way into the country bore witness to the devastation and brought back reports of children eating grass to survive. Refugees told stories of cannibalism, with families protecting the bodies of deceased relatives lest they be consumed by starving neighbors.
While his people starved, Kim Jong-Il denied himself few pleasures. His taste for expensive drink ran to a cellar stocked with 10,000 French wines. While North Koreans survived on the equivalent of $900 per year, Kim spent $700,000 annually just on his beloved Hennessy cognac. Even as North Korea appealed to the UN for food relief, Kim retained a personal sushi chef and enjoyed rare delicacies like shark-fin soup. While traveling on his personal train, he had live lobsters flown in at stops along the way.
Famine and malnutrition left a permanent effect on the North Korean populace. A 2002 UN European Survey found an average 7-year-old boy in North Korea was 20 centimeters shorter and 22 pounds lighter than his counterpart in South Korea. Not even the army, traditionally the best-fed profession outside the ranks of the Communist Party elite, was immune from these effects. As of 2011, North Korean soldiers were reportedly six inches shorter than South Korean soldiers.
To account for the injustices he visited on his people, Kim Jong-Il directed the blame abroad. In the state-enforced ideology, North Korea was the victim of outside forces, most prominently the United States and South Korea. Entire museums were devoted to anti-American propaganda. Generations of North Koreans have been raised on horror stories about the “bloody atrocities of the eternal enemies of the North Korean people – American imperialism, Japanese colonialism, and their South Korean puppets.” Consequently, North Koreans today believe that the United States and South Korea started the Korean War, the inverse of what actually happened.
Systematic human-rights abuses throughout North Korea were rampant and well documented during Kim’s reign. It is estimated that there were some 200,000 political prisoners in the country as of 2006, and there were innumerable reports of torture, slave labor, and forced abortions and infanticides in the prison camps. Incarcerated without trial, many were guilty of not just alleged wrongdoing — a crime that could include nothing more than stealing some food to stave off starvation — but also of the Orwellian crime of “wrong-thinking.” As many as one third of the prisoners in these camps died in the early 1990s under hideous conditions. Eyewitness accounts by former guards tell of starvation so extreme that prisoners tried to eat undigested grains in animal feces. Even this was considered a crime, and many prisoners were executed for trying to survive. In honor of his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong-Il issued a brief stay on the executions. Before long, though, he decided that he wanted to “hear the sound of gunshots again.” Firing squads were told to aim at the heads because they were filled with “the wrong thoughts.”
In 1994 negotiations with the Clinton administration, Kim agreed to shut down his nation’s nuclear-weapons production program in exchange for two light-water (non-weapons-related) nuclear reactors (funded mostly by South Korea) plus fuel oil shipments from the United States. But in October 2002 Kim’s government admitted, when confronted with incontrovertible U.S. intelligence presented by the Bush administration, that it had violated its 1994 pledge and had in fact been illegally developing a nuclear program for several years. In late December 2002, Kim expelled UN weapons inspectors from the country and declared that he would never again abide by the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, from which he officially withdrew North Korea in January 2003. After that, Kim’s government vacillated between affirming and denying that it already possessed a nuclear arsenal of some kind.
Over the course of his totalitarian reign, Kim presided over a massive, rapidly growing network of six slave-labor camps — which were home to more than 200,000 North Koreans, including approximately 70,000 children — located in the rugged, isolated mountain terrain of central North Korea. These gulags were — and continue to be — repositories for those unfortunate North Koreans who committed perceived “political offenses” against the despotic regimes of Kim Jong ll and his father before him. The network’s “Total Control Zones,” in particular, are areas from which no prisoners are ever released. As such, these camps hold up to three generations of North Koreans, many of whom were born into permanent captivity.
During his years as dictator, Kim rarely appeared or spoke publicly in his homeland. As of 2006, his voice had been broadcast only once therein –- in 1992, when, during a military parade, he shouted into a microphone: “Glory to the heroic soldiers of the people’s army!”
It is believed that in August 2008 Kim suffered a serious stroke. Because of the North Korean government’s complete lack of transparency, the degree of physical or mental impairment that Kim may have suffered was not known.
On December 17, 2011, Kim died of a heart attack while traveling on a train. Upon news of his death, North Koreans traveled en masse to the capital, publicly weeping and mourning.
Officially, Kim was survived by three wives, three sons, and three daughters. Other reports, however, indicated that he had fathered some 70 children, most of whom were housed in villas throughout North Korea.
Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, succeeded him as the supreme head of North Korea’s government.