During his reign, he menaced the world with his nuclear ambitions and presided over a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of his subjects.
Mr. Kim formally succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, less than three years after the collapse of North Korea’s longtime sponsor, the Soviet Union. With the end of Soviet trade subsidies and security guarantees, Mr. Kim found himself in charge of a broken and vulnerable country.
He plowed his nation’s scant resources into nuclear arms and attempts to build missiles capable of striking the West Coast of the United States, and he used what many North Korea watchers called nuclear blackmail to extract international aid in the form of fuel and food.
Mr. Kim had a knack for keeping the world on edge. North Korea shot ballistic missiles over Japan in 1998 and detonated a small nuclear device in 2006. It sold missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, among other countries, stoking fears that North Korean-made weapons of mass destruction would find their way to terrorists.
The smooth transfer of power to Kim Jong Eun is far from certain, even as state media attempts to reassure the North Korean populace of the “Great Successor.” As Chico Harlan explained:
With North Korea deeply mourning its “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, the government in Pyongyang tried to reassure its people Monday with a message about Kim’s son, the “Great Successor.”
“Under the leadership of Kim Jong Eun,” North Korea’s state-run media said, “we should turn our sorrow into strength.”
North Korea has had just two leaders in the past 63 years — Kim, and his father, Kim Il Sung. Now, the reclusive government says, the Dear Leader’s son — believed to be in his late 20s — will continue the dynasty and grapple with the challenge of holding the deeply impoverished, nuclear-armed country together.
Before Kim Jong Il’s death, experts and government officials in Seoul and Washington agreed on at least one major point about the North Korean father-to-son power transfer: The longer Kim Jong Il lived, the better its chances.
When Kim Jong Il formally took power from his father in 1994, he’d already worked behind the scenes for almost two decades. He had visited foreign countries and orchestrated military attacks: He’d studied his father’s methods.
But the current power transfer began only 15 months ago, when North Korea held a massive political gathering in Pyongyang, naming Kim Jong Eun to several top military and Workers’ Party positions.
A plump young man now in his late 20s, Kim Jong Eun studied for a time in Switzerland at a German-speaking high school in Liebefeld, a suburb of the Swiss capital Bern. Former classmates remember a shy but determined boy obsessed with American basketball and expensive sports shoes. They say he spoke passable German and made some local friends, but was monitored closely by staff from the North Korean embassy in Bern.
South Korea has placed its military on high alert in response to Kim Jong Il’s death and the transfer of power, and South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea had conducted at least one missile test Monday. As AP reported :
North Korea conducted at least one short-range missile test Monday, the same day it announced the death of leader Kim Jong Il, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Two South Korean military officials said they couldn’t immediately confirm the report, saying to do so would breach a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.
Both said any firing would be part of a routine drill and have little relation to Kim Jong Il’s death. They both spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy.
Yonhap cited unidentified government and military officials as saying the test occurred off the east coast.
North Korea is urging its people to rally behind Kim Jong Il’s young son and heir-apparent Kim Jong Un, as the world watches warily for signs of instability in a nation pursuing nuclear weapons.
South Korea has put its military on high alert against the North’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces. President Barack Obama agreed by phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely monitor developments.