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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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North Korea announced last night its leader, Kim Jong Il, has died. State TV said he was 69 years old. Kim has been called a delusional leader who was responsible for a famine that killed a million of his people. To others, he was a political survivor who managed to hold his own in a high-stakes game of nuclear poker.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this look at Kim's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SONG OF GENERAL KIM JONG IL")

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korea's Lodestar-2 satellite, which it claims it launched in April of 2009, broadcasts an electronic version of the "The Song of General Kim Jong Il," transmitting the Dear Leader's cult of personality to the far reaches of outer space.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SONG OF GENERAL KIM JONG-IL")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: The sound of praise for our general spreads atop Mount Baekdu and all over beautiful Korea, proclaims another version of the song. Hail, Hail General Kim Jong Il.

Kim's official biographers say he was born on Mount Baekdu, the mythic origin of the Korean race. In fact, he was born in 1942 in the Russian Far East, where his father, Kim Il Sung, was waging guerilla warfare against Japanese occupation of Korea. Given Kim Il Sung's stature and charisma as North Korea's founding father, Kim Jong Il was at a disadvantage from the start.

SELIG HARRISON: Kim Jong Il has been more than a front man, but less than the totalitarian leader that his father was, able to just issue diktats and do whatever he wanted to do.

KUHN: Selig Harrison, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., met twice with Kim Il Sung. He says that Kim Jong Il was not the natural-born political animal his father was. Kim Jong Il was the son of Kim Il Sung's first wife. His second wife wanted her eldest son to be heir, not Kim Jong Il.

Many of the old guard within the ruling Workers' Party, meanwhile, felt a dynastic succession from one Kim to the next was un-communist.

HARRISON: I think this had a lot to do with making him a very defensive, manipulative, cunning operator who did eventually get his father's nod as the heir who faced tremendous opposition from within the Workers' Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUHN: The death of his father in 1994 thrust Kim Jong Il into the spotlight. The following year, economic collapse plunged the country into roughly three years of famine that killed more than two million people.

B.R. Myers is head of the International Studies Department at Dongseo University in South Korea. He says that even with the regime's many tools of repression, it's amazing that Kim was able to prevent a massive exodus of starving refugees.

B.R. MYERS: When he took over the country in 1994, with the economy already in freefall and the country really having lost its main benefactor in the Soviet Union, and when you think that we were all predicting North Korea's downfall within one or two years back then, I mean, when you think about how well he played that card, it really is quite extraordinary.

KUHN: The late Hwang Jang Yop was Kim Jong Il's mentor and a top Workers' Party official until he defected to South Korea in 1997. He remained a harsh critic of his former bosses until his death last year. But he recalled that even at the height of the famine, Kim commanded intense loyalty from many North Koreans. Hwang remembered visiting a North Korean logistics officer during the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HWANG JANG YOP: (Through translator) What did he say, do you know? He said: Is General Kim OK? Please do your best to take good care of him. We are OK to die of hunger. He was insane.

KUHN: Kim responded to the famine by launching some limited economic reforms, including the jangmadang, or private markets for food and daily necessities, which the state-run economy could no longer adequately provide. He also stepped up diplomatic engagement, leading to the first inter-Korean summit in 2000.

In a 2009 interview shortly before his death, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung recalls that Kim Jong Il, the dictator, was abhorrent. But Kim the summit host was a far cry from the foreign media caricature of Kim as Dr. Evil in a leisure suit, platform shoes and a bouffant hairdo.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

KIM DAE-JUNG: (Through translator) I, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson all met with Secretary Kim Jong Il. We shared similar impressions of meeting him. He was smart, and a quick problem-solver. He was also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world.

KUHN: Wendy Sherman was a special adviser to President Bill Clinton on North Korea, and she accompanied then-Secretary of State Albright to Pyongyang in 2001. She sat next to Kim at a stadium to watch a huge festival of synchronized dancing. Sherman says she turned to Kim and said...

WENDY SHERMAN: Mr. Chairman, I have the sense that in some other life, you were a great director, because he clearly took such delight in putting these performances together. And he said, yes. He cared about this a great deal. He owned every Academy Award movie. He had watched them all. He also had every film of Michael Jordan's NBA basketball games and had watched them, as well.

KUHN: North Korea announced it tested its first atomic bomb in 2006. Pyongyang then played the nuclear card in a game of brinksmanship. It promised to disarm, but then backtracked if it felt slighted or wanted more political and economic benefits in return. President George W. Bush maligned Kim Jong Il as a moral pygmy and placed North Korea squarely on his so-called axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes pose a grave and growing danger.

KUHN: Pyongyang pointed to Washington's rhetoric as evidence that the U.S. was poised to attack the North or seek regime change. Kim Jong-il used the threat of U.S. hostility, meanwhile, to divert domestic attention from economic hardships. Zhang Liangui is a North Korea expert at the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School in Beijing. Zhang says Kim's reading of his regional opponents was spot-on, and he was effective in exploiting the differences among them.

ZHANG LIANGUI: (Through translator) North Korea is a small and weak country, yet Kim was able to manipulate so many big countries in its hand. Kim made the other countries in the six-party talks dance to his tune, and there was nothing the other parties could do about it.

KUHN: In other words, North Korea is a small country shaped by the big powers surrounding it: China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. But Korea's geo-strategic position in Asia is such that a shrewd tactician - perhaps with a little nuclear clout - can turn the peninsula into a tail that wags quite a few dogs. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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