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Happy Birthday, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s “Dear Leader”

February 16, 2011
by Isabel Cowles
Kim Jong Il assumed power a few years after his father suffered a heart attack. The dictator has a reputation as a somewhat erratic playboy, but his nuclear ambitions must certainly be taken seriously; he exploded a nuclear bomb in 2006.

Kim Jong Il’s Early Days

Kim Jong Il was born on February 16. North Korean officials claim that Kim was born in a log cabin on Mount Packtul, the highest point in Korea, and that a double rainbow marked his birth in 1942. Other records indicate he was born the year before in Siberia, where his father, Kim Il Sung, was stationed as a Soviet Army commander during World War II.

Much myth surrounds North Korea’s current head of state and at times it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction. It is known, however, that he lost his younger brother and mother, not long after the family returned to Korea. His father became the premier, and then the president of North Korea, and was referred to as the “Great Leader.”

Kim attended Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and wrote a thesis on his father’s agricultural policy. Although he revered his father, Kim often felt neglected by him, as Kim Il Sung had remarried and begun a new family.

For years, it was widely anticipated that his father would appoint his second son, Kim’s half brother, Kim Yong Ju, as successor. But in 1975, Kim was unexpectedly named the “party center,” at which point he became known as the country’s “Dear Leader.”

Immediately thereafter, Kim became culture czar, which allowed him to pursue his interests in film and opera. Soon afterwards, he was named General Secretary of the Workers’ Party and was elected in 1991 to succeed his father as commander of the country’s army, despite having no military training.

Kim Jong Il as Leader of North Korea

Three years after the death of his father in 1994, Kim completely took over the task of running of North Korea’s communist government, earning a reputation as an irrational and enigmatic dictator.

Since becoming the country’s leader, Kim has made nuclear development a priority for the country, going so far as to set off a nuclear bomb in 2006, which violated a 1994 agreement to halt nuclear activities.

North Korea’s level of censorship ranks as one of the highest in the world, and Kim maintains his shroud of mystery through strict control of the press. However, he has garnered attention for his eccentric appearance, sporting a bouffant hairstyle and platform shoes to make himself seem taller. Reports suggest he has a passion for women, Hollywood movies and gourmet food and alcohol, although it is difficult to discern which elements of his persona are authentic and which are exaggerations. 

Despite his quirks, some experts assert that Kim’s bizarre-seeming public image masks a quite rational leader According to CNN, “Kim’s persona seems to have been carefully cultivated to become a leader who has played a poor hand of cards skillfully.”

Although he has periodically attempted to make peace with the West, Kim has never fully committed to the process, often sporadically “reverting to the use of shrieking vitriol,” The New York Times reports.

Kim Jong Il’s Health and Possible Successor

In August 2008, Kim Jong Il apparently suffered a stroke, although North Korean officials maintain that he is in perfect health. The event prompted speculation as to his choice for successor, although there were no immediate leads.

However, a South Korean news report in January 2009 indicated that Kim had named his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. Further evidence of this potential handover came in the fall of 2010, when Kim Jong Un was named a four-star general and appeared alongside his father during a parade.

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