A reclusive, some felt extremely dangerous despot, who ruled his country with an iron fist, baiting and threatening the West and South Korea since 1994, Kim Jong-Il, “The Dear Leader,” of North Korea, finally succumbed to the one force that no one can defeat – time. Kim, who kept his nation on the brink of starvation, banished or killed thousands, and turned the country into a pariah state, died of apparent heart failure Dec. 17. According to state media, he was on a train trip to give field guidance when he died of “physical and mental overwork.” The Official news agency, KCNA, later said he died after a advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated with a serious heart shock, medical jargon for a massive heart attack.
Everything about Kim Jong-Il, son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, remains a mystery, even the exact cause of his death. His exact date and place of birth, the subject of much official mythology, is a mystery, although he’s thought to have been born in 1942 in Russia’s far east when his father was based there waging guerrilla war against the Japanese. The official version has him born in China, on Baekdu Mountain, the mythic origin of the Korean race. The state-controlled media of North Korea is not known for accuracy or truth in its reporting, and given that Kim has looked frail for some time, it becomes difficult to know his exact cause of death, only that is fairly certain that he made his last appointment with the Grim Reaper.
Taking the reins of the DPRK after the death of his father, Kim faced an uphill battle. Many of the old guard in the ruling Workers Party objected to the dynastic succession, viewing it as ‘uncommunist.’ Neither as charismatic nor as capable of his father, he was unable to exert his personal will as his father did, but through manipulation and cunning, was finally able to overcome the opposition. It has been widely speculated that many of the decisions since he came to power were actually made by the powerful military. The year after he took over, the country faced one of its worse economic situations in its history, with a famine that lasted until 1997 that killed over two million people. Only the iron control exerted by security forces prevented the mass exodus of many more millions.
In the ensuing years, though, many have managed to flee, with millions living in the Chinese border areas near Dandong and Tumen as undocumented aliens.
In 2006, North Korea announced the test of its first nuclear weapon, creating a tense situation of brinksmanship; offering at times to disarm, and at others threatening to use the weapon whenever it felt slighted, or suffered some problem needing outside assistance.
Kim will likely be replaced at the helm by his son, Kim Jong-un, a relative unknown who is not yet 30. He is likely to face even more difficulty reining in the old guard than his father did, which means that the situation on the Korean Peninsula, always volatile, could be ratcheted up a few degrees, at least in the short term. We must never forget that the Korean War is technically not over, only in a cease fire; a condition that North Korea has violated scores of times since the main combat operations of the Korean War ended. A power struggle in Pyongyang could be the match that ignites yet another round of hostilities in this dangerous area.