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North Korean leader Kim Jong Il dies

20 December, 2011

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Pyongyang: Kim Jong-il, the reclusive dictator who kept North Korea at the edge of starvation and collapse, banished to gulags citizens deemed disloyal and turned the country into a nuclear weapons state, died Saturday morning, according to an announcement by the North's official news media on Monday.

He was reported to be 69, and had been in ill health since a reported stroke in 2008.

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 World War II.

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.

Mr. Kim was a source of fascination inside the Central Intelligence Agency, which interviewed his mistresses, tried to track his whereabouts and psychoanalyzed his motives. And he was an object of parody in American culture.

Short and round, he wore elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses and a bouffant hairdo - a Hollywood stereotype of the wacky post-cold war dictator. Mr. Kim himself was fascinated by film. He orchestrated the kidnapping of an actress and a director, both of them South Koreans, in an effort to build a domestic movie industry. He was said to keep a personal library of 20,000 foreign films, including the complete James Bond series, his favorite. But he rarely saw the outside world, save from the windows of his luxury train, which occasionally took him to China.

He was derided and denounced. President George W. Bush called him a "pygmy" and included his country in the "axis of evil." Children's books in South Korea depicted him as a red devil with horns and fangs. Yet those who met him were surprised by his serious demeanor and his knowledge of events beyond the hermit kingdom he controlled.

"He was a very outspoken person," said Roh Moo-hyun, who as South Korea's president met Kim in Pyongyang in 2007. "He was the most flexible man in North Korea."

Wendy Sherman, who served as counselor to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, said, "He was smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident, sort of the master-director of all he surveyed."

Albright met Mr. Kim in October 2000 in what turned out to be a futile effort to strike a deal with North Korea over limiting its missile program before President Bill Clinton left office.

"There was no denying the dictatorial state that he ruled," Ms. Sherman said. "There was no denying the freedoms that didn't exist. But at the time, there were a lot of questions in the U.S. about whether he was really in control, and we left with no doubt that he was."

When Ms. Albright and Ms. Sherman sat down to talk through a 14-point list of concerns about North Korea's missile program, "he didn't know the answers to every question, but he knew a lot more than most leaders would - and he was a conceptual thinker," Ms. Sherman added.

And though he presided over a country that was starving and broke, he played his one card, his nuclear weapons program, brilliantly, first defying the Bush administration's efforts to push his country over the brink, then exploiting America's distraction with the war in Iraq to harvest enough nuclear fuel from his main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to produce the fuel for six to eight weapons.

End.

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