PYONGYANG, North Korea — Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died of heart failure. He was 69.
In a "special broadcast" Monday from the North Korean capital, state media said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train due to a "great mental and physical strain" on Saturday during a "high-intensity field inspection." It said an autopsy was done Sunday and "fully confirmed" the diagnosis.
Kim is thought to have suffered a stroke in 2008, but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media. The communist country's "Dear Leader" — reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine — was thought to have had diabetes and heart disease.
"It is the biggest loss for the party ... and it is our people and nation's biggest sadness," an anchorwoman clad in black Korean traditional dress said in a voice choked with tears. She said the nation must "change our sadness to strength and overcome our difficulties."
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South Korean media, including Yonhap news agency, said South Korea put its military on "high alert," and President Lee Myung-bak convened a national security council meeting after the news of Kim's death. Officials couldn't immediately confirm the reports.
The news came as North Korea prepared for a hereditary succession. Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994.
In September 2010, Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son, the twenty-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts.
Traffic in the North Korean capital was moving as usual Monday, but people in the streets were in tears as they learned the news of Kim's death. A foreigner contacted at Pyongyang's Koryo Hotel said hotel staff were in tears.
Asian stock markets moved lower amid the news, which raises the possibility of increased instability on the divided Korean peninsula.
South Korea's Kospi index was down 3.9 percent at 1,767.89 and Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell 0.8 percent to 8,331.00. Hong Kong's Hang Seng slipped 2 percent to 17,929.66 and the Shanghai Composite Index dropped 2 percent to 2,178.75.
Kim was an unknowable figure. Everything about him was guesswork, from the exact date and place of his birth (officially Feb. 16, 1942), to the mythologized events of his rise in a country formed by the hasty division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II.
North Korean legend has it that Kim was born on Mount Paekdu, one of Korea's most cherished sites, in 1942, a birth heralded in the heavens by a pair of rainbows and a brilliant new star. Soviet records, however, indicate that he was born in Siberia, in 1941.
North Koreans heard about him only as their "peerless leader" and "the great successor to the revolutionary cause."
Kim was a source of fascination inside the Central Intelligence Agency, which interviewed his mistresses, tried to track his whereabouts and psychoanalyzed his motives. And he was an object of parody in American culture.
Short and round, he wore elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses and a bouffant hairdo — a Hollywood stereotype of the wacky post-Cold War dictator. Kim himself was fascinated by film. He orchestrated the kidnapping of an actress and a director, both of them South Koreans, in an effort to build a domestic movie industry. He was said to keep a personal library of 20,000 foreign films, including the complete James Bond series, his favorite. But he rarely saw the outside world, save from the windows of his luxury train, which occasionally took him to China.
He was derided and denounced. President George W. Bush called him a "pygmy" and included his country in the "axis of evil." Children's books in South Korea depicted him as a red devil with horns and fangs. Yet those who met him were surprised by his serious demeanor and his knowledge of events beyond the hermit kingdom he controlled.
South Korea has accused Kim of masterminding a 1983 bombing that killed 17 South Korean officials visiting Burma. In 1987, the bombing of a Korean Air Flight killed all 115 people on board; a North Korean agent who confessed to planting the device said Kim himself ordered the downing of the plane.
Kim faithfully carried out his father's policy of "military first," devoting much of the country's scarce resources to its troops — even as his people suffered from a prolonged famine — and built the world's fifth-largest military.
Kim also sought to build up the country's nuclear arms arsenal, which culminated in North Korea's first nuclear test explosion, an underground blast conducted in October 2006. Another test came in 2009.
Alarmed, regional leaders negotiated a disarmament-for-aid pact that the North signed in 2007 and began implementing later that year.
However, the process continues to be stalled, even as diplomats work to restart negotiations.