North Korea's Kim Jong-il is no more. The reclusive dictator who ruled his country with an iron fist passed away on Saturday from a heart failure at the age of 69. The news was announced by North Korea's state media and quickly spread like wildfire. North Korea is the only country still behind the Iron Curtain -- it is shrouded in secrecy which explains the world's fascination with this country and its dictator.
Recently, the country's Dear Leader -- as Kim is known, was seen visiting China and Russia, fueling rumors about his visits. Was the purpose of the visit to build support for his son and heir? Or was this a trip to request help for his impoverished nation? His death has prompted South Korea to put its military on alert amid concerns about the stability of the nuclear-armed neighbor to its North.
A Country Divided
The communist country of North Korea, along with South Korea is part of the Korean peninsula that borders China and Russia. Actually, Korea is home to one of the oldest civilizations on earth, and the division only happened post WWII – in 1948 after it was freed from Japanese occupation.
Neither the US nor the Soviet Union could agree on how to administer the land, and the Cold War that ensued made matters worse. In 1948, two separate nations with opposite economic, social and political systems were formed, divided along what is called the 38th parallel. When the North invaded the South in 1950, all-out war broke out, called the Korean War. Again, the US supported the South and the Soviet Union and China, the North. Post-war, the South eventually (in the 1980s) adopted democracy and the North due to its history of Soviet occupation aligned itself with Communist Russia and China.
Whatever little is known about the country has been through people who escaped the regime and sought asylum in South Korea and the U.S. Many carried tales of persecution, hunger and human right abuses.
The Kim Dynasty
Kim Jong-il was a child when his father Kim Il-sung founded North Korea in 1945, backed by Russia's Communist government. Kim Il-sung was a crafty dictator who slowly wiped out all opposition parties and established complete control over North Korea. The Workers Party became his puppet that merely agreed to all his policies. He instituted a scheme known as juche or self-reliance -- one that isolated his country from the rest of the world especially with the fall of Communism in 1989.
Kim Jong-il grew up in his father's footsteps, and was groomed to be his successor. After his father's death in 1994, he took over the country's leadership, and unfortunately continued his father's policies of arming the military. He lived lavishly while his people starved as North Korea suffered from one of its worst famines. He has escalated tensions with South Korea by doing nuclear tests, and bombing South Korean patrol boats.
Last year, Kim Jong-il announced his third son Kim Jong-un as his successor. The 27-year old is unprepared for this sudden turn of events. It remains to be seen whether there will be a power struggle for leadership among the top generals or whether there will be another smooth transfer of power to the next Kim generation.