Kim Jong-Il: leadership and legacy

North Korea's leader of almost two decades has died. What happens next will determine Kim Jong-Il's place in the country's history, says Charles K Armstrong.

The death of Kim Jong-Il, the 69-year-old leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), on 17 December 2011, invites assessment of his role in North Korea's modern history and the legacy he has bequeathed to his successor and to North Korea.

Kim Jong-Il assumed power after the death of his father Kim Il-Sung in 1994, at the height of North Korea’s confrontation with the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons programme, and just as the country was about to plunge into a devastating famine. It was not an auspicious time to become North Korea’s supreme leader.

The younger Kim was then 42 years old, and had been preparing for his succession since his 20s. After his graduation from Kim Il-Sung University in 1964, Kim rose through the ranks of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, focusing on culture and propaganda. He enjoyed film and the arts, fine food and drink, and kept late hours - and he even candidly admitted to a conference of party workers in 1996 that economics was never his strong suit. But though he lacked the charisma and outgoing personality of his father, he was not the unstable and intellectually vacuous playboy of South Korean propaganda; foreign leaders who met him - including South Korea's president Kim Dae-Jung, Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, and US secretary of state Madeleine Albright - described him as intelligent, well-informed, even charming.

At the same time, many features of Kim Jong-Il's rule - a series of confrontations with the US and the international community over North Korea's nuclear development, and an economic situation that lurched from crisis to crisis - augmented the country’s reputation for unpredictability and provocation. North Korea held two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, in defiance of international condemnation and United Nations sanctions; in 2010, North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island in a confrontation over South Korean military exercises, an incident that brought the two sides to the brink of open warfare.

Yet if much of the outside world saw Kim Jong-Il as a combination of enigma and rogue, his reputation within North Korea is more difficult to assess. Of course, internal North Korean propaganda built up Kim - as it had his father, who is still widely revered - as a hero of near-superhuman abilities, venerated by all his compatriots. But defectors’ reports suggest the view of Kim within his country is more mixed. Kim Jong-Il is associated both with the trauma of famine and crisis in the late 1990s, and with limited steps toward economic reform in the early 2000s that have since been scaled back.

A more considered judgment will in large part depend on how the DPRK develops in the next period. If North Korea survives and its circumstances improve - perhaps under Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Un - Kim may be remembered as a leader who guided the country through its worst post-war crisis and prepared the way for reform. If things go badly, Kim will be seen as the man who oversaw the unravelling of the system his father built and as the embodiment of a failed dynastic communism.

About the author

Charles K Armstrong is professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, specialising in modern Korean, east Asian, and international history. His most recent books are Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 (Cornell University Press, 2013) and The Koreas (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2014). His earlier books include The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 (Cornell University Press, 2003) and Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2006)

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Charles K Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 (Cornell University Press, 2003)

Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country (New Press, 2004)

Charles K Armstrong ed., The Koreas (Routledge, 2006)

Nautilus Institute

Center for Korean Research, Columbia University

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Charles K Armstrong is associate professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, specialising in modern Korean, east Asian, and international history. Among his books are The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 (Cornell University Press, 2003), Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, 2nd edition; 2006) and (as editor) The Koreas (Routledge, 2006)