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Kim Jong-il Biography


Kim Jong-il, North Korea's Dear Leader

Kim Jong-il

Pool Photo / Getty Images

Kim Jong-il was widely considered to be one of the 5 Worst Dictators in Asia.

Early Life:

According to his official biography, North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, was born in 1942 on the sacred Baektul Mountain under a double rainbow.

In fact, he was born in the Soviet village of Vyatskoye on February 16, 1941. His parents were in exile there, participating in a Korean/Chinese battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade that fought against the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Kim Jong-il was just four years old when the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces. The Kim family returned to Pyongyang, where Jong-il's father, Kim Il-sung, took the reins of power in newly-liberated North Korea.


Having lost one son to drowning and his wife in childbirth, Kim Il-sung probably sent his surviving child, Jong-il, to school in the People's Republic of China from 1950 to 1960. The Korean War was raging for much of that time, so Pyongyang was unsafe.

Kim Jong-il studied practical topics such as automotive repair and agricultural techniques at school in preparation for leading a workers' republic. He also led his classmates in Marxist political theory study groups for the Children's Union and the Democratic Youth League.

Entry into National Politics:

Kim Jong-il graduated from university in 1964 and joined the Korean Workers' Party. Over the next three decades, the younger Kim dedicated his life to strengthening his father's image, and increasing his own power within the government. Kim Jong-il took control of the propaganda, including all of the arts, the media, and much of Pyongyang's military structure.

In 1974, Kim Jong-il was named his father's official successor. His younger brother, born to Kim Il-sung's second wife, was posted to distant European ambassadorships to prevent a power struggle.

State-Sponsored Terror:

During the 1980s, according to foreign analysts, Kim Jong-il was involved in at least two acts of state-sponsored terrorism. The first was a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, which left 17 South Korean government officials dead. The second, a 1987 bombing of Korean Airlines flight 858, killed all 115 people on board.

These incidents were an early sign that Kim Jong-il would take a harder-line approach to international relations than his father had. The younger Kim also demanded absolute obedience and respect from the people, and was willing to dole out extreme punishments to any who disobeyed.

The Supreme Leader:

On July 8, 1994, Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack at age 82. He was named “Eternal President,” and laid to rest in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang.

As a result of his father’s “eternal” status, Kim Jong-il was not officially the President of North Korea. Although he was Kim Il-sung’s chosen successor, the younger Kim may have been an unpopular choice among the Party faithful. His take-over of the government was a slow and cautious process. It was several years after Kim Il-sung's death before foreign observers were sure that Kim Jong-il truly would become North Korea’s next leader.

Domestic Policy:

As North Korea's leader, Kim distanced himself even from North Korea’s traditional allies, Russia and the People’s Republic of China. He also instituted a “Military-First” policy, devoting the majority of the country’s resources to the armed forces. Those policies, combined with a cycle of devastating droughts followed by catastrophic floods, caused widespread famine throughout the 1990s and early 21st century.

Huge shipments of food aid from traditional foes such as South Korea, Japan, and the United States arrived too late to save an estimated 200,000 to 3.5 million North Korean famine victims.

Foreign Policy:

In 1998, South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung instituted a “Sunshine Policy” toward the North. This was meant to improve relations between the two Koreas, freeze the North’s nuclear program, and foster economic cooperation, as a first step toward reunification of the peninsula. The Sunshine Policy suffered a number of setbacks, with most egregious coming on October 9, 2006 — the day North Korea successfully conducted its first underground nuclear test.

Kim Jong-il puzzled surrounding powers and the U.S. with his erratic policies on the nuclear issue and other important matters.

Human Rights Abuses:

Kim Jong-il also faced international pressure over human rights abuses. The North Korean government runs a series of “re-education camps” that hold as many as 50,000 citizens of all ages prisoner for political “crimes” such as failure to adore the Dear Leader.

In addition, Kim was reviled for the kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean citizens off of beaches by North Korean submarine crews for use as intelligence community language and culture trainers. Such kidnappings have all but ceased today, but many of South Korea’s beaches still sport rolls of concertina wire just above the high-tide line.

Quirks and Spending Habits:

Kim Jong-il was known for his eccentric and extravagant tastes. He imported $700,000 worth of Hennessy cognac per year, ate lobster, caviar, and the finest sushi every day, and loved Hollywood movies such as “Rambo” and the “Friday the 13th” series. Kim also enjoyed racing cars, and had a fleet of Mercedes Benz S500 luxury sedans. Reportedly, the dictator also loved roasted donkey meat.

Kim Jong Il was a big fan of guitar legend Eric Clapton, and once invited the musician to play in Pyongyang. Clapton did not accept the invitation.

Personal Life and the "Cult of Personality":

Kim was extremely secretive about his personal life. It is believed that he married once, had one child from this marriage, and that he also had three mistresses and two other children.

Kim's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, was disgraced by a 2001 arrest in Tokyo for traveling with a forged passport. His position as the successor to his father was ruined by this incident, although reports suggested that he was trying to get back into Kim Jong-il's good graces when the Dear Leader passed away. The third son, Kim Jong-un, was groomed instead to succeed Kim Jong-il, whose health began to decline seriously after 2005.

Like any good dictator, Kim Jong-il built an elaborate cult of personality. Pictures of him and his late father adorned all public buildings, and criticism of the Kims is punishable by imprisonment in the concentration camps. Both men’s birthdays are important national holidays. All media sources are controlled by the State, of course, so praise for the “Dear Leader” was broadcast constantly over the radio and in newspapers.

Some outside observers believe that this obedience and adulation arises from actual love and respect either for Kim Jong-il, or for the memory of his father. Most, however, believe that the citizens of North Korea are motivated more by fear than by hero worship.

Kim Jong-il's Death:

Kim Jong-il died during a train trip on December 17, 2011. This was one of his series of internal trips in order to supervise and advise the industrial and agricultural producers of North Korea. According to official news reports, he died of a heart attack due to overwork.

Immediately after his death, his third son Kim Jong-un was named as the "Great Successor" to his father. Kim Jong-un has proved himself an appropriate successor to his father, with arbitrary decisions, summary executions, and saber-rattling military posturing.

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