Kim Jong-il: Evil genius or just plain crazy
Last Updated September 9, 2008
North Koreans have said they would die for their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il. North Korea's state-run media call him the peerless one. But South Korean and American media say he's a wacko, and U.S. President George W. Bush has referred to him as a spoiled child.
With one hand, Kim has threatened to abandon the 1953 Korean War Armistice, fired a missile into the Sea of Japan and intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace. With the other, he has offered to dismantle his country's nuclear capabilities in exchange for international energy aid and other benefits.
Kim's actions have the world questioning his every move; he's been called an evil genius and just plain crazy.
In September 2008, when Kim failed to appear at a national parade in Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of the country's founding, speculation swirled that he was gravely ill, possibly after having suffered a stroke. He hadn't appeared in public since mid-August 2008.
One Japanese scholar, however, believes his health problems go back further than that. Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea expert who teaches at Japan's Waseda University, has speculated that Kim actually died five years ago and that North Korea has been using body doubles at public events ever since.
For years Kim remained shrouded behind layers of communist propaganda and secrecy. It wasn't until 2000 that he started to make forays onto the world stage, first hosting an unprecedented summit with then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and then welcoming then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the nation.
Then, in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Kim admitted North Korea had abducted about a dozen Japanese civilians in the 1970s and 1980s to help train its spies. In October 2002, Kim allowed the five surviving abductees to return to Japan for two weeks.
The state-run media call Kim a brilliant politician and paint him as a frugal workaholic. In 1994, he brokered a deal that saw the U.S., Japan and South Korea pump billions of dollars in foreign aid into his country in exchange for the cessation of his nuclear program.
Others see Kim as ruthless and selfish, living in opulence while his poverty-stricken nation suffers one hardship after another. Natural disasters compounded by poor governance have caused a famine in the country that aid workers say has killed more than two million people over the last decade.
His government is also mired in scandal. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and South Korean intelligence point to Kim as the mastermind behind several terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, (also known as Yangon, Myanmar) that killed 17 South Koreans, and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean plane that killed 115.
The mystery surrounding Kim extends back to the date and place of his birth. According to state officials, he was born in February 1942 at his father's guerrilla base on Mount Paektu, North Korea's highest mountain. "At the time of his birth there were flashes of lightning and thunder, the iceberg in the pond on Mount Paektu emitted a mysterious sound as it broke, and bright double rainbows rose up," the official lines read.
However, historians say Kim was born a year earlier during his father's period of exile in Siberia. Kim Il-Sung had fled to the former Soviet Union when Japan put a price on his head for guerrilla activities in occupied Korea. After Japan's surrender in the Second World War, the family returned to the northern part of the peninsula, where Soviet dictator Josef Stalin designated Kim Il-Sung the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kim Jong-il's early years were marked by tragedy. His younger brother drowned as a child and his mother died when he was seven. He was sent to Manchuria when the Korean War broke out in 1950 and stayed away until it ended, three years later.
In 1964, Kim graduated from the Kim Il-Sung University, where legend has it he wrote 1,500 books, all of which are stored in the state library. It is also said that he wrote six operas, all of which are better then any in the history of music, and designed the Juche Tower, a 150-metre tower that commemorates his father.
By 1980, Kim's father designated him as his successor and he was given senior posts in the politburo, the military commission and the party secretariat. Following in the tradition of his father, who was called "Great Leader," Kim was called "Dear Leader."
He eventually took control of the armed forces and then officially took power in 1994, a few months after his father died.
Kim is believed to have three children - Kim Sul Song, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chul - who have two different mothers. None has been declared to be Kim's successor.