Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-il Passes Away: End of an Era in North Korea

Kim Jong Il, the mercurial and enigmatic North Korean leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died at the age of 69.
Kim's death 17 years after he inherited power from his father was announced on Monday by the state television from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Kim's longtime pursuit of nuclear weapons and his military's repeated threats to South Korea and the United States have stoked fears that war might again break out or that North Korea might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist movements.
Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media.
Principle of Self-Reliance
Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. He had been groomed for 20 years to lead the communist nation founded by his guerrilla fighter-turned-politician father and built according to the principle of "juche," or self-reliance.
In September 2010, Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son, the twenty-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts. Even with a successor, there had been some fear among North Korean observers of a behind-the-scenes power struggle or nuclear instability upon the elder Kim's death.
Unknowable Figure
Called the “Dear Leader” by his people, Kim, the son of North Korea’s founder, remained an unknowable figure. Everything about him was guesswork, from the exact date and place of his birth to the mythologized events of his rise in a country formed by the hasty division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of the Second World War.
North Koreans heard about him only as their “peerless leader” and “the great successor to the revolutionary cause.” Yet he fostered what was perhaps the last personality cult in the Communist world. His portrait hangs beside that of his father, Kim Il-sung, in every North Korean household and building. Towers, banners and even rock faces across the country bear slogans praising him.
Country’s Nuclear Arms Arsenal
Kim was a source of fascination inside the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which interviewed his mistresses, tried to track his whereabouts and psychoanalyzed his motives. And he was an object of parody in American culture.
Kim Jong-il was also a driver of the secret nuclear weapons program, which continued with secret help from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network after a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration supposedly froze all developments.
Kim sought to build up the country’s nuclear arms arsenal, which culminated in North Korea’s first nuclear test explosion, an underground blast conducted in October 2006. Another test came in 2009.
Mass starvation among the North Korean population, after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended critical external aid and floods ruined successive crops, did not divert Kim from his cultivation of the Korean People's Army, under his ''Songun'' (army first) doctrine.
Role as Defense Chief
Kim's role as chairman of the National Defense Commission, commanding the army, became more important than the general-secretary role in the Worker's Party. Frequent on-the-spot ''guidance sessions'' and sharing of meals with frontline soldiers were aimed at reinforcing personal loyalty among the soldiers.
The death comes at a sensitive time for North Korea as it prepares for next year's 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il Sung - Kim Jong Il's father. The preparations include massive construction projects throughout the city as part of Kim Jong Il's unfulfilled promise to bring prosperity to his people.
Seoul and Washington will worry that Kim Jong Un 'may feel it necessary in the future to precipitate a crisis to prove his mettle to other senior leaders', according to Bruce Klingner, an Asia analyst at The Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
Personal Interests
Kim was said to have cultivated wide interests, including professional basketball, cars and foreign films. He reportedly produced several North Korean movies as well, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge.
A South Korean film director claimed Kim even kidnapped him and his movie star wife in the late 1970s, spiriting them back to North Korea to make movies for him for a decade before they managed to escape from their North Korean agents during a trip to Austria.
Kim rarely travelled abroad and then only by train because of an alleged fear of flying, once heading all the way by a luxury rail car to Moscow, indulging in his taste for fine food along the way.
One account of Kim’s lavish lifestyle came from Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian presidential envoy who wrote the book The Orient Express about Kim’s train trip through Russia in July and August 2001.
Paroxysm of Grief
Kim's death was unlikely to plunge the country into chaos because it already was preparing for a transition. Kim Jong Il indicated a year ago that Kim Jong Un would be his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts. North Korea will now go into a paroxysm of grief that may continue until the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth in April.

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