Today In History: 17 December 2011 North Korean Ruler Kim Jong II Died

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Kim Jong Il, also spelled Kim Chong Il, (born February 16, 1941, SiberiaRussia, U.S.S.R.—died December 17, 2011), North Korean politician, son of the former North Korean premier and (communist) Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) chairman Kim Il-Sung, and successor to his father as ruler (1994–2011) of North Korea.

In 2008 speculation began that Kim’s health was deteriorating; after his absence from public view for several months, it was suspected that he had suffered a stroke. The following year Kim and the North Korean political establishment began a series of moves apparently toward designating Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, as his successor.

North Korean state media announced on December 19, 2011, that Kim had died on a train two days earlier.

The official North Korean version of Kim Jong Il’s life, different from the biography documented elsewhere, says that he was born at a guerrilla base camp on Mount Paektu, the highest point on the Korean peninsula; it attributes many precocious abilities to him; and it claims his birth was accompanied by such auspicious signs as the appearance of a double rainbow in the sky. During the Korean War (1950–53) he was placed in safety in northeastern China (Manchuria) by his father, although the official biography does not mention the episode. After attending a pilots’ training college in East Germany for two years, he graduated in 1963 from Kim Il-Sung University. He served in numerous routine posts in the KWP before becoming his father’s secretary. He worked closely with his father in the 1967 party purge and then was assigned several important jobs. Kim was appointed in September 1973 to the powerful position of party secretary in charge of organization, propaganda, and agitation.

Kim was officially designated his father’s successor in October 1980, was given command of the armed forces in 1990–91, and held high-ranking posts on the Central Committee, in the Politburo, and in the Party Secretariat. When Kim Il-Sung died of a heart attack in 1994, Kim Jong Il became North Korea’s de facto leader. He was named chairman of the KWP in October 1997, and in September 1998 he formally assumed the country’s highest post. Since the position of president had been eliminated by the Supreme People’s Assembly, which reserved for Kim Il-Sung the posthumous title of “eternal president,” the younger Kim was reelected chairman of the National Defense Commission, an office whose powers were expanded.

During his leadership of the country, Kim built on the mystique already surrounding his father and himself. Conflicting information circulated regarding his personal life, most of it unreliable and—perhaps deliberately—serving to add to the mystery. It was known that Kim took an interest in the arts and encouraged greater creativity in literature and film, although the products remained primarily propaganda tools. A well-known film buff, Kim headed a movie studio before ascending to the country’s leadership. It produced works celebrating socialist values, Kim Il-Sung and his national policy of self-reliance (juche), and, later, Kim Jong Il himself and his “military first” (sŏngun chŏngch’i) policy. As part of his desire to create better films, in the late 1970s the younger Kim had a South Korean film director, Shin Sang-Ok, and his wife, actress Choi Eun-Hee, abducted to the North, where they were pressed into service until their 1986 escape.

After becoming North Korea’s leader, and with his country facing a struggling economy and a famine, Kim made moves toward amending North Korea’s long-standing policy of isolationism. Throughout the late 1990s and early 21st century, Kim sought to improve ties with a number of countries. In addition, he appeared to be abiding by the terms of a 1994 agreement (called the Agreed Framework) with the United States in which North Korea would dismantle its own nuclear program in return for arranging for the construction by an outside party of two nuclear reactors capable of producing electric powerSouth Korea was the primary contractor on the project.