5 things the world hated most about Kim Jong Il

North Korea's "Dear Leader" dies at the age of 69, and will likely be remembered as an egotistical despot who was enigmatic, colorful, and cruel

Beyond his excessive and eccentric style, Kim Jong Il's rule may be most remembered for his nuclear battles and the famine he has inflicted on his citizens.
(Image credit: KCNA/Xinhua Press/Corbis)

After 17 years of tumultuous rule, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died Saturday at the age of 69. The mercurial, enigmatic dictator —who came to power when his father, who founded North Korea, died in 1994 — was one of the most combative and colorful despots in modern history. As the world debates what's next for the isolated, poverty-stricken North Korea, here's a look at five things that defined Kim Jong Il's rule:

1. His unquestioned, absolute authority

"There is, perhaps, no totalitarianism in the world that is as all-embracing as North Korea's," says Michael Hirsh at National Journal. "Something like it hasn't existed since Stalin died." The secretive communist nation is remarkable for its apparent lack of dissidents. Though most North Koreans' quality of life is terrible, no detectable undercurrent is pushing for a democratic uprising. In that sense, Kim Jong Il was "the most successful dictator in modern history."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

2. His habit of blatantly antagonizing South Korea

Before succeeding his father in 1994, Kim reportedly ordered a 1983 bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 senior South Korean officials, and the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed 115 passengers, says Reuters. Kim is also suspected of ordering the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean military ship and, in November of that same year, the bombing of a South Korea-controlled island, says Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna at the Los Angeles Times. Immediately following Kim's death, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak put the country's military on high alert.

3. His willingness to ignore famine and poverty

When Kim first took power, communist North Korea's economy was in a shambles following the end of the Cold War and the ensuing loss of its trading partners. Then a devastating famine in the 1990s led to the death of about one million North Koreans. Even as the population suffered from poverty and famine, Kim continued his father's "military first" mandate, says the Associated Press, and devoted nearly all of the country's scarce resources to building "the world's fifth-largest military."

4. His nuclear obsession

North Korea's "Dear Leader" frustrated the U.S. and other global powers with his "on-again, off-again approach to talks on giving up nuclear arms for energy and other assistance," says the Associated Press. Meanwhile, North Korea detonated a nuclear device in 2006, conducting a second nuclear test in 2009. Now, the world is rightfully terrified about the future of North Korea's half-dozen or so nuclear weapons, says Joby Warrick at The Washington Post. The nukes are "both a matter of immense pride and an insurance policy for a regime that sees itself threatened by much larger countries, including the United States." So don't expect Kim's successor to abandon "his obsessive pursuit of nuclear weapons."

5. His narcissistic personality

"Kim Jong Il was a real-life Dr. Evil, intent on being taken seriously and yet almost unfailingly laughed at," says Hirsh. "[He was] strutting and pouf-haired, a self-described connoisseur of fine wine and cigars as well as (according to North Korea's ever-inventive media) a brilliant inventor who shot 38 under par his first time playing golf." He was quite the cinephile as well, says the U.K.'s Telegraph. The "near-obsessive film buff" boasted a reported collection of more than 20,000 video tapes. And he spared no expense: Kim drank about £450,000 (roughly $700,000) worth of premium cognac each year.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.