When Kim Il Sung's firstborn son came into the world on Feb. 16, 1942, he was given the Korean name Jong Il. He was also called Yura, which is Russian. After all, he was born in Khabarovsk, in the Soviet Far East. North Korean mythographers prefer to obscure that unpatriotic nativity, claiming that their Dear Leader first saw light on sacred Mount Paektu -- the site, according to legend, where Korean civilization sprang into existence 5,500 years ago. Such official obfuscations have ensured that Kim Jong Il remains mostly myth himself, even as he succeeds his father and becomes the leader of one of the world's most dangerous regimes.
An early family photograph shows a cherubic little boy in the uniform of a Soviet naval cadet, grinning as he stands nestled between his father and mother. But Kim Jong Il's childhood was hardly a settled one. He was only seven when he lost his mother. She died in labor, delivering a stillborn infant just a year after her husband was anointed leader of North Korea by Stalin's regime. The Korean War then engulfed the peninsula, and Kim Jong Il spent its duration in northeast China. Back home, he transferred from school to school before graduating from Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang in 1964. His thesis: an analysis of his father's ideas on socialist agriculture. Still, the young Kim complained in private that his father -- who had remarried in 1963 and started a new family -- was too busy being the Great Leader to spend time with him.
Kim Jong Il's transfiguration was startling. Until 1975 Kim Il Sung's younger brother Kim Yong Ju was heir apparent. Then, suddenly, Jong Il was publicly hailed as the "party center"; soon afterward, he became Dear Leader to his father's Great Leader. He also became culture czar, producing movies and lecturing on the art of opera. Kim Il Sung spared nothing to burnish his son's reputation. The younger Kim was credited, years after the supposed incident, with saving his father from a 1967 coup attempt. He was named General Secretary of the Workers' Party. Though without military training, Kim Jong Il was elected in 1991 to succeed his father as commander of the country's 1.2 million-strong armed forces. In the past few years, he has reportedly taken on the daily work of running the government.
With his high-heeled shoes and cumulus-cloud hairdo, Kim Jong Il displays a taste for the gaudy that is at odds with his country's spartan ways. He surrounds himself with the scions of his father's wartime comrades, a new generation of revolutionaries who call themselves the Loyal Warriors and whose cars carry license plates emblazoned with the Dear Leader's birth date. Mercurial and erratic, Kim Jong Il rarely meets foreign dignitaries. Defectors have told tales about his huge film collection, his penchant for Portuguese oranges and -- though he is reportedly married with two children -- a weakness for Swedish women. More ominous is his supposed ruthless management of Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program and terrorist activities, including the 1983 attack in Burma that killed a large part of the visiting South Korean Cabinet and a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner. And if someone gets in the way of his succession? Says Dae-Sook Suh, an expert on the Pyongyang regime at the University of Hawaii: "Kim Jong Il will have him killed right away."