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Kim Jong IlJames E. Hoare
Leader of the DPRK from July 1994, when he succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, until his death, reportedly from a heart attack on 17 December 2011.
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KIM JONG IL (1942-2011)
Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from July 1994, when he succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, until his death, reportedly from a heart attack on 17 December 2011.
He was succeeded by his third known son, Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Il’s formal titles were general secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), a post to which he was elected in October 1997, commander-in-chief of the armed forces (from 1991), and chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), a position he held from 1992 and to which he was reelected at each new Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA). Although long expected to succeed his father, he took only one of the latter’s formal titles, that of party general secretary. In September 1998, after a change to the constitution, the position of chairman of the NDC was redefined as the nation’s highest post. Kim Jong Il did not become president, that office being preempted by the decision in 1998 to designate Kim Il Sung “president in perpetuity.” Since Kim Il Sung’s death, state ceremonial functions have passed to the chairman of the SPA Presidium, currently (in 2012) Kim Yeong-nam.
According to official DPRK accounts after he emerged as his father’s successor, Kim Jong Il, the eldest son of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jeong-suk, was born in 1942 in a guerrilla camp on Mount Baekdu on the border with China, in an area that Koreans have traditionally regarded as sacred. His birth was supposedly marked by unusual natural phenomena. (Similar events, such as unseasonal rainbows and unusual behavior by birds and animals are also said to have marked his death.) The reality seems to be that he was born in 1941 near Khabarovsk in the Soviet Union, where his father had lived from 1941 to 1945. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the family returned to Korea. During the Korean War (1950-53), he and his sister, Kim Gyeong-hui, were sent first to the far north of the peninsula and then to northeast China for safety. The two siblings remained close ever afterward. Kim was educated at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, graduating in 1963. Some accounts claim that he also studied in the Soviet Union, in the German Democratic Republic, and in Malta. After graduation, the younger Kim worked in the KWP secretariat, eventually becoming his father’s secretary and assisting him in the purges of cadres accused of insufficient loyalty and enthusiasm in 1967. In 1973, Kim Jong Il became party secretary in charge of the Organization and Guidance Department. His treatise On the Art of the Cinema, which appeared that year, confirmed his close interest in the use of cinema as a didactic tool in propagating the appropriate ideological message. During the early 1970s, he is said to have been involved in film and stage productions. As well as writing on the cinema, he has also produced works on other aspects of the arts and on the juche idea. Throughout the following years, his father worked to have him accepted as his successor, sometimes against domestic resistance and foreign doubts. Before his formal designation as the successor in 1980, he was not named but was referred to as “the party centre.” By the early 1990s, he was said to be in charge of the day-to-day running of the country.
Kim Jong Il faced a series of problems after his father’s death. The DPRK was still suffering economic problems following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) trading system. From the mid-1990s, a series of natural disasters caused widespread damage and disruption and led to a decision to appeal for humanitarian aid. The resulting influx of foreign aid workers was unwelcome to the DPRK authorities and, it appears, to Kim Jong Il personally. Kim likewise made clear his opposition to the introduction of economic changes that might take the country away from the socialist model. Nonetheless, in 2002 he agreed to price and wage restructuring and to the improvement of managerial skills in production and marketing. This reforming trend continued until about 2005. Since then, however, there have been periodic efforts to pull back from the changes.
In foreign policy, Kim Jong Il moved away from his father’s former alliances and toward grappling with the issues of the country’s relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK), with regional neighbors such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, Japan, and with the United States. After considerable groundwork, including payments of large but unacknowledged sums, Kim Jong Il and then president of the ROK Kim Dae-jung met in Pyongyang for the June 2000 Inter-Korean Summit. A promised return visit by Kim Jong Il to the ROK failed to materialize. Contacts between the two Koreas continued at various levels and in a number of fields, however, including the Gaeseong Industrial Zone. Despite increased tensions after 2002 over the DPRK’s nuclear intentions and periodic fluctuations in the relationship, Kim Dae-jung’s successor, President Roh Moo-hyun, and Kim Jong Il held the October 2007 Inter-Korean Summit, also in Pyongyang. When the more conservative Lee Myung-bak succeeded Roh as president of the ROK in 2008, many of the contacts came to an end and there was a steady deterioration in relations.
After emerging from formal mourning for his father for three years, Kim exchanged several visits with Chinese and Russian leaders. In 2000, he received U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for discussions on a deal over missiles and regional security. Following President George W. Bush’s assumption of office in 2001, U.S. policies toward the DPRK hardened. In response, the DPRK withdrew from international nuclear agreements and resumed missile tests. Whatever the nature of the decision-making process in the DPRK is, it must be assumed that Kim Jong Il had the final say on important questions and that he therefore backed the current stand on the United States and other issues. His decision to meet then Japanese premier Koizumi Junichiro in 2002 to discuss issues dividing the two nations was a bold move, even if the talks became largely concerned with the fate of Japanese abductees. The DPRK’s admission of responsibility for the abductions indicated a desire to unfreeze DPRK-Japan relations and thereby press its claim for compensation from Japan. However, despite a second visit by Koizumi in 2004, relations with Japan deteriorated as the DPRK could not or would not meet Japanese demands over the abductees. Matters were made worse by nuclear and missile issues. As a result, Japan began to play an obstructive role in the Six Party Talks and imposed heavy sanctions on the DPRK. Not a great deal is known about Kim Jong Il’s abilities, though he largely managed to shake off the former unflattering image of him as a playboy. In meetings with visiting foreigners, he came across as confidant and knowledgeable and not unwilling to ask for information from his aides if he was unfamiliar with a subject. He was said to have a large collection of films and to be very interested in the Internet; he suggested to Madeleine Albright that they keep in touch by e-mail, although he failed to provide her with an e-mail address. After his father’s death, many of his public appearances were with the military, leading to speculation that he was dependent on them for support-or that he felt more at ease in a military atmosphere.
His private life was complicated, with children by several mothers. This is another subject about which there is very little reliable information. No details of his marital status have ever been published in the DPRK media. He has never appeared in public with a spouse. Accounts of his wives and mistresses appear regularly in the ROK but are generally unverifiable. In the early 2000s, people in the DPRK professed not to know if he was married. One report on his domestic life says that he thought a wife should be a person who takes care of children and does household work.
According to her sister, who published a book in 2000, his first mistress was an actress, Seong Hye-rim (1936-2002), whom he met during his schooldays. She later married one of his friends, but this did not stop her from becoming his mistress around 1970. She later divorced her husband. Their son, Kim Jeong-nam, was born in 1971. Some accounts say that he never met his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, because of the circumstances under which he was born. In 1973, Kim Jong Il apparently took up with Kim Yeong-suk, by whom he had one daughter. Later in the decade, he began a relationship with Ko Yeong-hui, by whom he had two sons, Kim Jeong-cheol and Kim Jong Un, and a daughter Kim Yeo-jeong. After Ko’s death from cancer in 2004, he is thought to have taken one of his secretaries, Kim Ok, as his mistress. The more salacious reports say that this was at Ko Yeong-hui’s suggestion.
In August 2008, Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke and did not appear for several months. This led to many rumors about who was actually running the country, especially when some apparently doctored pictures were published to show that he was still active. There was also speculation about a possible successor. When Kim reappeared in January 2009, he had visibly lost weight and appeared to have limited movement in one arm but seemed to be in full possession of his faculties. However, the naming of his third son, Kim Jong Un, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his grandfather Kim Il Sung, to a number of positions in September 2010 indicated that he was finally giving some thought to the succession issue. Kim Jong Un was not formally identified as his father’s son, but his apparent ease in his presence and his regular appearances alongside Kim Jong Il, together with his remarkable similarity to his grandfather hinted toward the relationship.
Kim Jong Il’s death was announced by the DPRK media on 19 December 2011, two days after it was said to have taken place on his train while he was on an inspection trip. ROK sources immediately cast doubt on the report saying that the train had not left Pyongyang. Wherever he died, there was no disputing the fact of his death, as DPRK television showed him lying in state at the Geumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body also lies, while mourners, including Kim Jong Un but not his brothers, passed by. The funeral on 28 December was also broadcast internationally, although not live, showing scenes of mass grief in the midst of heavy snow. No foreign delegations were invited, but the Chinese ambassador apparently attended. It was later announced that the body would be embalmed and take its place in the Geumsusan Memorial Palace with Kim Il Sung. His birthday, 16 February, would henceforth be celebrated as the Day of the Shining Star. Within the DPRK, the official statement was “We suffered the greatest loss in the history of our nation as a result of the sudden, unexpected and tragic loss of the great leader Kim Jong-il,” as stated by Yang Hyeong-seop, vice president of the Presidium of the SPA in an interview with the newly opened Associated Press office in Pyongyang in January 2012. Kim was said to have made the DPRK strong and independent through the development of nuclear weapons. Postage stamps depicting Kim Jong Il and books about his life quickly appeared. Echoing many themes from recent years and linking the legacy of the two deceased Kims, the party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, began carrying a moving banner on its Internet page that called on people to go “All out for a general offensive to achieve the prosperity of the great Kim Il Sung’s nation, Kim Jong Il’s Korea.”
International assessments of Kim Jong Il’s legacy were generally negative, blaming him for the continued economic decline of the country, for abuses of human rights, and for pursuing nuclear and missile programs in defiance of world opinion. DPRK defectors/refugees were particularly negative. There were widespread claims that Kim Jong Il was far less popular than Kim Il Sung and that apparent outpourings of grief were all staged with serious consequences for those who did not fully participate. Commentators in China and Russia were somewhat more nuanced, noting the continued existence of the DPRK 17 years after Kim Jong Il took power despite the widespread predictions in 1994 that neither he nor the regime would last.
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