On this day in 2011, Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s enigmatic, reclusive dictator, dies of a heart attack while reportedly traveling on a train in his country. Kim, who assumed leadership of North Korea upon the death of his father in 1994, ruled the Communist nation with an iron fist, and his isolated, repressive regime was accused of numerous human rights violations.
Little is known about Kim’s early life, although it is believed he was born in 1941 at a Soviet military base near Khabarovsk, Russia, where his father was stationed. However, when Kim became leader of North Korea, the government propaganda machine, which presented numerous myths about him as fact, claimed he was born on February 16, 1942, atop Korea’s sacred Mount Paektu, as a new star and double rainbow appeared overhead. (Among the many other questionable claims reported by the state media about the man known as the “Dear Leader” and “Supreme Leader” to his followers was that he made 11 holes-in-one in a single round of golf, composed numerous operas, invented an invisible cell phone and could control the weather.)
In 1948, Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), became head of the newly established Communist nation of North Korea (officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The younger Kim graduated from the country’s Kim Il Sung University in 1964, and went on to rise through the Korean Workers’ Party, the ruling political party, while also developing a reputation as a playboy who enjoyed fine food and expensive liquor. Additionally, Kim, a film fanatic, amassed a vast collection of foreign movies, and in 1978 ordered the kidnapping of a famous South Korean actress and her director husband in order to boost North Korea’s movie industry.
Soon after Kim succeeded his father, North Korea experienced a series of severe famines that killed an estimated 2 million people by the late 1990s. As ordinary citizens suffered economic hardships, Kim directed a substantial portion of the nation’s budget to maintaining a large military and to the development of nuclear weapons (which North Korea tested in 2006 and 2009). Additionally, under Kim’s totalitarian regime, the media was controlled by the state, and average North Koreans had minimal personal liberties and couldn’t leave the country (the few foreigners who were allowed in were closely monitored). Those who opposed the government were sent to harsh prison camps. As with his father (now referred to by North Koreans as the “eternal president”), a cult of personality built up around Kim. The two men were portrayed as deities and images of them appeared on all public buildings.
The relationship between North Korea and the United States, along with much of the West, was strained due to Kim’s secretive nuclear weapons program. In 2002, President George Bush called out North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. However, in 2008, the Bush administration took North Korea off the U.S. list of terrorism-supporting nations after it agreed to allow some inspections of its nuclear sites.
After Kim died on December 17, 2011, his embalmed body was put on permanent public display in Kumsusan Memorial Palace in the nation’s capital, Pyongyang. (The body of Kim Il Sung has been on display there since he died.) Kim was succeeded as leader of North Korea by the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong Un, then in his 20s and largely unknown to the world.