Kim Jong Il

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KCNA / AFP / Getty

Kim Jong Il

After reports in early September that North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, may have suffered a debilitating stroke (which North Korean officials deny), Pyongyang confirmed on Sept. 19 — again, without Kim present —that it was preparing to restart its nuclear reactor. With North Korea a fragile state whose population hovers constantly on the brink of famine and with no clear successor to Kim in place, the only thing more frightening than a rogue nation with him at the helm could be one without him.

An easy way of summing up Kim's life in one sentence would be to throw in the words reportedly, allegedly and the occasional is said to. So little is known for sure about him — and so widespread are the myths about him generated by Pyongyang's tireless propaganda machine —that the real story of North Korea's leader can be hard to divine. Thus, Kim's life starts with his birth either in Siberia — where his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, was in exile — or on Mount Paektu, the highest point on the Korean Peninsula. In an early move to quell expected resistance to his son's succession, Kim Il Sung designated the younger Kim as the next leader of North Korea in 1980. It wasn't until 1998, however, four years after his father's death, that Kim Jong Il took over the country's leadership — having been made leader of the Korean Workers' Party and chairman of the National Defense Commission, but not President, a title reserved posthumously for his father.

The Man
• Kim may have been married as many as three times and reportedly has three sons and one daughter.
• He is said to wear nearly 5-inch platform shoes to increase his height, which is normally about 5' 3".
• A film aficionado, Kim reportedly has a collection of as many as 20,000 films.
• A CIA profiler once told CNN that Kim, known to be a frequent drinker and a bit of a playboy, recruited "young girls of junior high school age to take part in 'Joy Brigades'" to help him and his officials relax.
• Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said of Kim with regards to the soundness of his thinking and decision making: "I found him very much on the top of his brief."

The Myth
• The official state-sponsored account of Kim's birth on Mount Paektu contends that there were "flashes of light and thunder, the iceberg in the pond of Mount Paektu emitted a mysterious sound as it broke, and bright double rainbows rose up."
• The Dear Leader likes to keep busy writing novels, producing and writing movies and playing golf — reportedly shooting 11 holes-in-one in his first attempt at the game.

What's Next
• The Associated Press reported that South Korean officials are keeping a close watch on Kim's female caregiver Kim Ok who may be signing official documents on the ailing leader's behalf and gaining government influence.
• North Korea's military is about 1.1-million strong with military spending accounting for about 25% of the gross domestic product, leaving little left for a population of more than 23 million.

(See photos of Kim Jong Il's rise to power here.)
(See photos of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang here.)