Belying his caricature image as an eccentric playboy, late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was a politically skilled and ruthless ruler who kept North Korea’s brutal regime in place despite famine and economic decline.
Kim, who died on Saturday of a heart attack aged 69, perpetuated his power using propaganda, prison camps, an all-pervading personality cult inherited from his father and a massive army.
He defied widespread predictions of regime collapse as the communist state’s command economy wilted under its own contradictions and Soviet aid dried up in the early 1990s.
In the 1990s Kim presided over a famine that by some estimates killed 1 million — but he still found resources to continue a nuclear weapons program culminating in tests in October 2006 and May 2009.
Severe food shortages continue. The UN children’s fund estimates a third of children are stunted by malnutrition.
The regime faces increasing pressure from sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs and the parlous state of the economy. However, the late leader’s state of health accelerated a perilous succession.
Kim suffered a stroke in August 2008. Some reports say he also suffered from kidney failure which required dialysis, diabetes and high blood pressure.
More worryingly, analysts said his decisionmaking had become increasingly erratic — because of the stroke’s after-effects or because he was trying to bolster the credentials of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as eventual successor.
They cited a deadly torpedo attack in March last year on a South Korean warship. The sinking, which Seoul and Washington blamed on Pyongyang, triggered tougher US sanctions as well as reprisals from Seoul.
Then in November last year, the North bombarded the flashpoint border island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. It was the first attack on a civilian area since the 1950s.
Both the US and South Korea have warned of rising dangers from an unpredictable Pyongyang as Kim Jong-un seeks to cement his credibility with the all-powerful military.
Kim Jong-il inherited power from his father Kim Il-sung, the 100th anniversary of whose birth comes next year in another flashpoint date that has US and South Korean analysts watching on nervously.
Kim Jong-il presented Kim Jong-un as his heir apparent in September last year, extending the communist world’s only dynasty.
According to hagiographic official accounts, Kim Jong-il was born on Feb. 16, 1942 at Mount Paekdu, a sacred site to Koreans. Independent experts say his birthplace was actually a guerrilla camp in Russia, from where his father was fighting Japanese forces who had colonized the Korean Peninsula.
Some put his birth year as 1941.
After graduating in 1964 from university, Kim Jong-il began his climb through the ranks of the ruling Workers’ Party. He was officially designated successor in 1980, but did not formally take power until three years after the 1994 death of his father.
Visitors or escapees portrayed Kim Jong-il as a cognac-guzzling playboy, with an appetite for foreign films, fine dining and women. He was said to have a collection of 20,000 Hollywood movies and engineered the kidnap in 1978 of a South Korean film director and his girlfriend.
However, the playboy image obscured a darker past.
Kim Jong-il was said to have been involved in planning a 1983 bomb attack in Myanmar that left 17 South Koreans dead, as well as the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air jet that killed all 115 people on board.