North Koreans said they would die for their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il. North Korea's state-run media called him the peerless one. But South Korean and American media said he was a wacko.

On the one hand, he repeatedly courted all-out war with his southern neighbours — last November, North Korea fired about 170 rounds of artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, killing two marines and two civilians on the South Korean side. On the other hand, he offered to dismantle his country's nuclear capabilities in exchange for international energy aid and other benefits.

Kim's actions had the world questioning his every move. He was called an evil genius and just plain crazy, and his death on Dec. 17 of a reported heart attack is unlikely to settle the debate.

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 first swirled that he was gravely ill, possibly after having suffered a stroke. He hadn't appeared in public since mid-August 2008. Other theories emerged, including one that suggested he actually died in 2003, and had been represented in public by a variety of body doubles.

Man of mystery

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 later 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 called Kim a brilliant politician and painted 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 saw Kim as ruthless and selfish, living in opulence while his poverty-stricken nation suffered one hardship after another. Natural disasters compounded by poor governance caused a famine in the country that aid workers said killed more than two million people over the last decade.

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), which killed 17 South Koreans, and the 1987 bombing of a South Korean plane that killed 115.

Hallowed birth

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 Joseph 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 reportedly better than 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," the younger 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 four children – sons Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul and Kim Jong-un and daughter Kim Sul-song — from two different mothers.

In 2009, the youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was reported to be North Korea's next leader. Like his father and grandfather, he was given an official nickname: "Brilliant Comrade."