Kim Jong Il, the reclusive dictator who kept North Korea at the edge of starvation and collapse, banished to gulags citizens deemed disloyal...

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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 media Monday. He was 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 carved rock faces across the country bear slogans praising him.

In a special broadcast Monday from the North Korean capital, state media said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train due to a “great mental and physical strain” during a “high intensity field inspection.” It said an autopsy “fully confirmed” the diagnosis.

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The White House said President Obama was monitoring reports of the death, and that U.S. officials are in contact with allies in South Korea, where more than 20,000 U.S. troops are stationed, and Japan.

South Korean media, including the Yonhap news agency, said South Korea put its military on “high alert” and President Lee Myung-bak convened a national security council meeting after the news of Kim’s death. The two Koreas remain technically in a state of war more than 50 years after the peninsula’s Cold War-era armed conflict ended in a cease-fire.

Traffic in the North Korean capital was moving as usual Monday, but people in the streets were in tears as they learned the news of Kim’s death.

Asian stock markets moved lower amid the news, which raises the possibility of increased instability on the divided Korean peninsula.

Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke three years ago, but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia, and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media.

The communist country’s “Dear Leader” — reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine — was believed to have had diabetes and heart disease.

The news came as North Korea prepared for a hereditary succession.

Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994.

In September 2010, Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son, the 20-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts.

Unlike Kim Jong Il, his son has had little time to be groomed in the art of running a dysfunctional country of roughly 24 million people. It is unclear whether there is much allegiance, if any, to Kim Jong Un.

North Korea on Monday urged its people to rally behind Kim Jong Un as they mourn his father. The official Korean Central News Agency said the country “must faithfully revere respectable comrade Kim Jong Un” and called him a “great successor.”

The North declared a national mourning period until Dec. 29 and said Kim Jong Il’s body will be placed at the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang, where his father, Kim Il Sung, is buried. North Koreans will be allowed to pay respects for a week starting Tuesday, but foreign delegations will not be received.

An enormous funeral service is scheduled for Dec. 28 in Pyongyang, according to KCNA, a state news agency. The next day, a “national meeting of mourning” will take place, with all North Koreans to pay a three-minute silent tribute.

Kim Jong Il himself had been groomed for 20 years to lead the communist nation, which was founded by his guerrilla fighter-turned-politician father and built according to the principle of “juche,” or self-reliance.

Even with a successor, some North Korean observers have feared a behind-the-scenes power struggle or nuclear instability upon his death.

The Kim mythology

Few firm facts are available when it comes to North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated countries, and not much is clear about Kim.

North Korean legend has it that Kim was born on Mount Paekdu, one of Korea’s most cherished sites, in 1942, a birth heralded in the heavens by a pair of rainbows and a brilliant new star.

Soviet records, however, indicate he was born in Siberia in 1941.

His father, who for years fought for independence from Korea’s colonial ruler, Japan, from a base in Russia, emerged as a communist leader after returning to Korea in 1945 after Japan was defeated in World War II.

With the peninsula divided between the Soviet-administered north and the U.S.-administered south, Kim rose to power as North Korea’s first leader in 1948.

The North invaded the South in 1950, sparking a war that would last three years, kill millions of civilians and leave the peninsula divided by a demilitarized zone that today remains one of the world’s most heavily fortified.

In the North, Kim Il Sung meshed Stalinist ideology with a cult of personality that encompassed him and his son.

Kim Jong Il, a graduate of Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University, was 33 when his father anointed him his eventual successor.

Even before he took over as leader, there were signs the younger Kim would maintain — and perhaps exceed — his father’s hard-line stance.

South Korea has accused Kim Jong Il of masterminding a 1983 bombing that killed 17 South Korean officials visiting Burma, now known as Myanmar. In 1987, the bombing of a Korean Air Flight killed all 115 people on board; a North Korean agent who confessed to planting the device said Kim ordered the downing of the plane himself.

Kim Jong Il took over after his father died in 1994, and carried out his father’s policy of “military first,” devoting scarce resources to its troops — even as his people suffered from a prolonged famine — and built the world’s fifth-largest military.

Under Kim’s rule, the North accomplished the single milestone that his father had dreamed about, exploding two crude nuclear devices, one in 2006 and another in 2009, just months after President Obama took office. But while the tests may have given the country a measure of protection against a U.S. invasion, they also deepened Kim’s isolation.

The 2009 test killed any discussion inside the Obama White House of reaching out to the North Korean leadership, especially after Kim largely abandoned agreements he reached with the George W. Bush administration to denuclearize.

Desperate, isolated

North Korea, long hampered by sanctions and unable to feed its own people, is desperate for aid.

Flooding in the 1990s that destroyed the largely mountainous country’s arable land left millions hungry.

After the famine, the number of North Koreans fleeing the country through China rose dramatically, with many telling tales of hunger, political persecution and rights abuses that North Korea emphatically denied.

Kim often blamed the U.S. for his country’s troubles and his regime routinely derides Washington-allied South Korea as a “puppet” of the Western superpower.

President George W. Bush, taking office in 2002, denounced North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil” that included Iran and Iraq.

He later described Kim as a “tyrant.”

“Look, Kim Jong Il is a dangerous person. He’s a man who starves his people. He’s got huge concentration camps. And … there is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon,” Bush said in 2005.

Kim was an enigmatic leader. But defectors from North Korea describe him as an eloquent and tireless orator.

The world’s best glimpse of the man was in 2000, when the liberal South Korean government’s conciliatory “sunshine” policy toward the North culminated in the first-ever summit between the two Koreas.

A second summit was held in 2007 with South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun. But the thaw drew to a halt in early 2008 when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul, pledging to come down hard on the North.

Disputing accounts that Kim was “peculiar,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright characterized Kim as intelligent and well-informed, saying the two had wide-ranging discussions during her visits to Pyongyang when Bill Clinton was president.

Kim was said to have cultivated wide interests, including professional basketball, cars and foreign films.

He reportedly produced several North Korean films, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge.

A South Korean film director claimed Kim kidnapped him and his movie-star wife in the late 1970s, spiriting them back to North Korea to make movies for him for a decade before they escaped during a trip to Austria.

Kim rarely traveled abroad, and then only by train because of an alleged fear of flying, once heading by luxury rail car to Moscow, indulging his taste for fine food.

A Japanese cook later claimed he was Kim’s personal sushi chef for a decade, writing that Kim had a wine cellar stocked with 10,000 bottles and that Kim ate shark’s fin soup — a rare delicacy — weekly.

“His banquets often started at midnight and lasted until morning. The longest lasted for four days,” the chef, who uses the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, was quoted as saying.

Kim is believed to have curbed his indulgent ways in recent years and looked slimmer in more recent video footage aired by the state-run broadcaster.

Kim’s marital status wasn’t clear but he was believed to have married once and had at least three other companions. He had at least three sons with two women, as well as a daughter by a third.

His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 38, is believed to have fallen out of favor with his father after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001, saying he wanted to visit Disney’s Tokyo resort.

His two other sons by another woman, Kim Jong Chul and Kim Jong Un, are both in their 20s. Their mother reportedly died several years ago.

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