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Sun December 18, 2011
Remembrances

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, 69, Has Died

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:11 am

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il has died of apparent heart failure. He was 69.

In a "special broadcast" Monday from the North Korean capital, state media said Kim died on a train due to a "great mental and physical strain" during a "high-intensity field inspection" Saturday. It said an autopsy done Sunday "fully confirmed" the diagnosis.

Kim Jong Il wanted his successor to be his son, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s. But there was no immediate word on a new leader in North Korea.

Kim Jong Il was maligned by some as a delusional dictator and an eccentric playboy who was responsible for famine at home and terrorism abroad. To others, he was a political survivor who managed to hold his own in a high-stakes game of nuclear poker with big world powers.

A Political Foundation

Kim's official biographers say he was born on Mount Baekdu, the mythic origin of the Korean race. In fact, he was born in 1942 in the Russian Far East, where his father, Kim Il Sung, was waging guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Given Kim Il Sung's stature and charisma as North Korea's founding father, Kim Jong Il was at a disadvantage from the start.

"Kim Jong Il has been more than a frontman, but less than the totalitarian leader his father was, able to just issue diktats and do whatever he wanted to do," says Selig Harrison, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Harrison met twice with Kim Il Sung. He says Kim Jong Il was not the natural-born political animal his father was.

Kim Jong Il was the son of Kim Il Sung's first wife. His second wife wanted her eldest son to be heir, not Kim Jong Il. Many of the old guard within the ruling Workers' Party, meanwhile, felt a dynastic succession from one Kim to the next was "un-Communist."

"I think this had a lot to do with making him a very defensive, very manipulative, cunning operator who did eventually get his father's nod as the heir, who faced tremendous opposition from within the Workers' Party," he says.

Replacing His Father

The death of his father in 1994 thrust Kim into the spotlight. The following year, economic collapse plunged the country into roughly three years of famine that killed more than 2 million people.

B.R. Myers, head of the international studies department at Dongseo University in South Korea, says that even with the regime's many tools of repression, it's amazing that Kim was able to prevent a massive exodus of starving refugees.

Myers says when Kim took over the country in 1994, the economy was already in free fall, and the country had lost its main benefactor in the Soviet Union.

"When you think that we were all predicting North Korea's downfall within one or two years back then, when you think about how well he played that card during his rule, it really is extraordinary," Myers says.

The late Hwang Jang Yop was Kim's mentor and a top Workers' Party official until he defected to South Korea in 1997. After that, he was a harsh critic of his former bosses. But he recalled that even at the height of the famine, Kim commanded intense loyalty from many North Koreans. Hwang recalled visiting a North Korean logistics officer during the crisis; the officer said they were "OK to die of hunger" out of loyalty to Kim.

Kim responded to the famine by launching some limited economic reforms, including the jangmadang, or private markets for food and daily necessities that the state-run economy could no longer adequately provide.

He also stepped up diplomatic engagement, leading to the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

In a 2009 interview, shortly before his death, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung recalls that Kim the dictator was abhorrent, but Kim the summit host was a far cry from the foreign media caricature of Kim as Dr. Evil in a leisure suit, platform shoes and bouffant hairdo.

Wendy Sherman, a special adviser to President Clinton on North Korea, accompanied then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2001, and met Kim along with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.

"We shared similar impressions of meeting him. He was smart and a quick problem-solver," Sherman says. "He is also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world."

Sherman sat next to Kim at a stadium to watch a huge festival of synchronized dancing. She says she turned to Kim and told him she had the sense that in some other life, he was a "great director."

"He clearly took such delight in putting these performances together," she says. "And he says, yes, that he cared about this a great deal and that he owned every Academy Award movie, he had watched them all, and he also had every film of Michael Jordan's NBA basketball games and had watched them as well."

A Nuclear North Korea

North Korea announced it tested its first atomic bomb in 2006. Pyongyang then played the nuclear card in a game of brinksmanship. It promised to disarm, but then backtracked if it felt slighted or wanted more political and economic benefits in return.

President George W. Bush maligned Kim as a "moral pygmy" and placed North Korea squarely on his so-called "Axis of Evil" along with Iran and Iraq.

Pyongyang pointed to Washington's rhetoric as evidence that the U.S. was poised to attack the North or seek regime change. Kim used the threat of U.S. hostility, meanwhile, to divert domestic attention from economic hardships.

Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School in Beijing, says Kim's reading of his regional opponents was spot on, and he was effective in exploiting the differences among them.

"North Korea is a small and weak country, yet Kim was able to manipulate so many big countries in its hand," Zhang says. "Kim made the other countries in the six-party talks dance to his tune, and there was nothing the other parties could do about it."

In other words, North Korea is a small country shaped by the big powers surrounding it: China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. But North Korea's geo-strategic position in Asia is such that a shrewd tactician, perhaps with a little nuclear clout, can turn the peninsula into a tail that wags quite a few dogs.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

North Korea announced last night its leader, Kim Jong Il, has died. State TV said he was 69 years old. Kim has been called a delusional leader who was responsible for a famine that killed a million of his people. To others, he was a political survivor who managed to hold his own in a high-stakes game of nuclear poker.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this look at Kim's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SONG OF GENERAL KIM JONG IL")

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korea's Lodestar-2 satellite, which it claims it launched in April of 2009, broadcasts an electronic version of the "The Song of General Kim Jong Il," transmitting the Dear Leader's cult of personality to the far reaches of outer space.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SONG OF GENERAL KIM JONG-IL")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: The sound of praise for our general spreads atop Mount Baekdu and all over beautiful Korea, proclaims another version of the song. Hail, Hail General Kim Jong Il.

Kim's official biographers say he was born on Mount Baekdu, the mythic origin of the Korean race. In fact, he was born in 1942 in the Russian Far East, where his father, Kim Il Sung, was waging guerilla warfare against Japanese occupation of Korea. Given Kim Il Sung's stature and charisma as North Korea's founding father, Kim Jong Il was at a disadvantage from the start.

SELIG HARRISON: Kim Jong Il has been more than a front man, but less than the totalitarian leader that his father was, able to just issue diktats and do whatever he wanted to do.

KUHN: Selig Harrison, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., met twice with Kim Il Sung. He says that Kim Jong Il was not the natural-born political animal his father was. Kim Jong Il was the son of Kim Il Sung's first wife. His second wife wanted her eldest son to be heir, not Kim Jong Il.

Many of the old guard within the ruling Workers' Party, meanwhile, felt a dynastic succession from one Kim to the next was un-communist.

HARRISON: I think this had a lot to do with making him a very defensive, manipulative, cunning operator who did eventually get his father's nod as the heir who faced tremendous opposition from within the Workers' Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUHN: The death of his father in 1994 thrust Kim Jong Il into the spotlight. The following year, economic collapse plunged the country into roughly three years of famine that killed more than two million people.

B.R. Myers is head of the International Studies Department at Dongseo University in South Korea. He says that even with the regime's many tools of repression, it's amazing that Kim was able to prevent a massive exodus of starving refugees.

B.R. MYERS: When he took over the country in 1994, with the economy already in freefall and the country really having lost its main benefactor in the Soviet Union, and when you think that we were all predicting North Korea's downfall within one or two years back then, I mean, when you think about how well he played that card, it really is quite extraordinary.

KUHN: The late Hwang Jang Yop was Kim Jong Il's mentor and a top Workers' Party official until he defected to South Korea in 1997. He remained a harsh critic of his former bosses until his death last year. But he recalled that even at the height of the famine, Kim commanded intense loyalty from many North Koreans. Hwang remembered visiting a North Korean logistics officer during the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HWANG JANG YOP: (Through translator) What did he say, do you know? He said: Is General Kim OK? Please do your best to take good care of him. We are OK to die of hunger. He was insane.

KUHN: Kim responded to the famine by launching some limited economic reforms, including the jangmadang, or private markets for food and daily necessities, which the state-run economy could no longer adequately provide. He also stepped up diplomatic engagement, leading to the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

In a 2009 interview shortly before his death, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung recalls that Kim Jong Il, the dictator, was abhorrent. But Kim the summit host was a far cry from the foreign media caricature of Kim as Dr. Evil in a leisure suit, platform shoes and a bouffant hairdo.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

KIM DAE-JUNG: (Through translator) I, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson all met with Secretary Kim Jong Il. We shared similar impressions of meeting him. He was smart, and a quick problem-solver. He was also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world.

KUHN: Wendy Sherman was a special adviser to President Bill Clinton on North Korea, and she accompanied then-Secretary of State Albright to Pyongyang in 2001. She sat next to Kim at a stadium to watch a huge festival of synchronized dancing. Sherman says she turned to Kim and said...

WENDY SHERMAN: Mr. Chairman, I have the sense that in some other life, you were a great director, because he clearly took such delight in putting these performances together. And he said, yes. He cared about this a great deal. He owned every Academy Award movie. He had watched them all. He also had every film of Michael Jordan's NBA basketball games and had watched them, as well.

KUHN: North Korea announced it tested its first atomic bomb in 2006. Pyongyang then played the nuclear card in a game of brinksmanship. It promised to disarm, but then backtracked if it felt slighted or wanted more political and economic benefits in return. President George W. Bush maligned Kim Jong Il as a moral pygmy and placed North Korea squarely on his so-called axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger.

KUHN: Pyongyang pointed to Washington's rhetoric as evidence that the U.S. was poised to attack the North or seek regime change. Kim Jong-il used the threat of U.S. hostility, meanwhile, to divert domestic attention from economic hardships. Zhang Liangui is a North Korea expert at the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School in Beijing. Zhang says Kim's reading of his regional opponents was spot-on, and he was effective in exploiting the differences among them.

ZHANG LIANGUI: (Through translator) North Korea is a small and weak country, yet Kim was able to manipulate so many big countries in its hand. Kim made the other countries in the six-party talks dance to his tune, and there was nothing the other parties could do about it.

KUHN: In other words, North Korea is a small country shaped by the big powers surrounding it: China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. But Korea's geo-strategic position in Asia is such that a shrewd tactician - perhaps with a little nuclear clout - can turn the peninsula into a tail that wags quite a few dogs. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.