'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il dies on trip to 'give guidance' to workers

Dec 19, 2011
Nigel Horne

In his elevator shoes and bouffant hairdo, he was the wacky dictator - unless you lived in North Korea

REVILED across the world and feared at home, North Korea's 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il has died of a heart attack brought on by physical and mental over-work. That's the official version: cynics will ask whether his chain-smoking and a taste for cognac and gourmet food – while many of his people lived on the edge of starvation – might have had anything to do with it.

His death is said to have occurred on Saturday morning while he was on a train journey to give "field guidance" to workers, but the news was released by the state's KCNA news agency only this morning. "Every possible first-aid measure was taken immediately but he passed away at 08:30," a weeping KCNA announcer told the nation.

As people in the streets of the capital Pyongyang burst into tears, according to the Associated Press, KCNA urged North Koreans to "faithfully revere" Kim's Swiss-educated son, Kim Jong-un, still in his 20s, who in recent months has been groomed to take over.

It was, said KCNA, "the nation's biggest sadness" and the people needed to "change our sadness to strength and overcome our difficulties."

Those difficulties are enormous. While Kim spent billions to build an arsenal of conventional weapons aimed at South Korea, and test-fire nuclear devices to improve his bargaining position with the US, the nation's economy descended into crisis, with millions suffering food shortages.

Earlier this year, the UN's World Food programme said six million North Koreans were at risk of starvation. According to The Daily Telegraph, this was "a consequence of poor economic management of its centrally planned system, a series of bad harvests caused by harsh winters, flooding and exhausted agricultural land, and the regime's unwillingness to spend its dwindling hard currency reserves on buying food for its 24 million people."

Whether the nation and the military will get behind Kim Jong-un, who does not enjoy the cult of personality that kept his father on his pedestal, is the subject of considerable speculation this morning.

According to news agencies, governments from South Korea to Japan to the US are on alert for a power struggle within the North Korean military and for border emergencies if North Koreans take the opportunity to escape.

However, Dr Leonid Petrov, a Russian-born North Korea expert at the University of Sydney, believes good will come of Kim's death. He told The Guardian: "They will try to use it to resume negotiations with the US, saying there is a new leader so why not go and talk."

Petrov went on: "It is an extremely convenient time for the North Korean leadership: they don't need to honour [Kim's] promise that North Korea will become a strong, powerful and prosperous state."

In America, where North Korea was known as "the axis of evil" and its leader "a pygmy" thanks to George Bush, he will be remembered as an object of parody, according to the New York Times.

"Short and round, he wore elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses and a bouffant hairdo — a Hollywood stereotype of the wacky post-cold-war dictator."

Kim's funeral will be held in Pyongyang on December 28. Until then, there will be a period of mourning in North Korea.

Sign up for our daily newsletter