In the West he was mocked for his bouffant, hispudgy belly and his platform shoes. But the ridicule could not conceal the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack at age 69 on Dec. 17, was able to maneuver his small, totalitarian nation into a force that compelled deep concern and even fear among the world's powers. He did so at a great cost to his people, including millions who died in famines in the 1990s and hundreds of thousands who are enslaved in prison camps. But in North Korea, he was called the Dear Leader and, more recently, the Supreme Leader. He sits at the pinnacle of state-enforced adulation in North Korea, below only his father, Kim Il Sung, alongside whom he will be buried in Kumsusan Memorial Palace on Dec. 29
To have legitimacy, whatever that means for North Korea, the new government will be headed by his third son, Kim Jong Un, already designated the heir in elaborate if cloudy rituals toward the end of 2010. The fear is that the new leader, who is only in his 20s, may be required to show his teeth and cold-bloodedness as proof that he has come of age. How that manifests itself is the stuff of nightmares from Seoul and Beijing to Washington.
Over the years, Kim toyed with economic reforms and made several visits to China to see how opening up had led to rapid growth in his country's massive neighbor and ally. But his instinct was to clamp down on any significant development of private markets, which could compete with the power of the state.
As leader, Kim continued North Korea's long quest for nuclear weapons, and in 2006 the country tested a small nuclear device,followed by another in 2009. Those tests further complicated the on-again, off-again denuclearization talks hosted by China, which is still pushing for a resumption of discussions. With Kim's death and the expected handover of power to Kim Jong Un, the likelihood of an agreement seems even more remote. Kim Jong Il's talent for flummoxing the international community in those talks was asign of his most distinguishing trait: the ability to play a weak position to the fullest.
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