The Kim Jong-il saga

Print edition : January 13, 2012

KIM JONG-IL was born on February 16, 1942, in Mount Paektu, a place revered by all Koreans. The North Korean media unfailingly reports that his birth was accompanied by the sighting of a bright star in the bright sky and the appearance of a double rainbow. His father, Kim Il-sung, was at the time leading a guerilla struggle against the Japanese occupation forces. Very little is known about Kim Jong-il's early life. He graduated from the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang in 1964 where he had specialised on the works of communist thinkers and military affairs. In his early political life, Kim focussed on cultural issues. He had a special fondness for cinema and wanted to make the North Korean film industry a world-class one. He authored a book on world cinema in the 1980s. He believed that good cinema had the potential to influence more people than the written word.

Kim Jong-il first came into the public gaze in the 1970s. He was elected to the politburo of the Workers Party in 1974 when he was 32. On December 1991, he was named the supreme commander of the North Korean Army. This was a key position as it is the North Korean army that calls the shots in the politics of the country. In 1992, Kim Il-sung publicly stated that his son was in charge of the internal affairs of the country. The South Korean government has charged Kim Jong-il for being responsible for the attack in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1983, which killed 17 of its officials, and for the bombing of a South Korean passenger plane in 1987, which claimed 117 lives.

The son lacked the father's charisma. He was short, obese and prematurely balding. Kim Jong-il also had a distinctive dress style. The North Korean media said in 2010 that his style had set a worldwide trend. Kim was officially designated the successor in 1980 but formally took power only in 1997, three years after his father's death. His elevation to the leadership of the Workers Party was the first and so far the only case of a communist party embracing dynastic succession. Many analysts and observers of the Korean scene were sceptical about Kim's ability to survive long at the helm. But the reclusive Kim quickly consolidated his grip on power, aided by the top military leadership his father had handpicked.

John Cherian

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