It is difficult to exaggerate the absolute vileness of what Kim Jong Il presided over since the death of his megalomaniac father Kim Il Sung, he is perhaps only exceeded by Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and Mao in sheer numbers of those murdered, but the whole superstructure of the regime is such a layer upon layer of fiction that is defies easy understanding. Almost everything about him and his regime was a lie, the reality evasion was on such a scale that millions died of mass starvation, hundreds of thousands lived and died in prison camps, including young children and the rest of the population lived under an ever present terror of facing oblivion due either to failure of the totalitarian state to deliver food and shelter, or because it would take them away.
Kim Jong Il was born in 1941 in the USSR by his father, a small scale anti-Japanese guerilla leader who fled Korea with his wife Kim Jong Suk after a number of small successes in repelling Japanese imperialism and its cruel rule of Korea. In the USSR Kim Il Sung learned of Marxism-Leninism and was impressed by the order and discipline imposed by Stalin. Kim Jong Il would have been an insignificant small boy if his father hadn't been hand picked by the Red Army and Stalin's regime to be Moscow's plant in Korea. He was brought along whilst the Red Army marched into the northern half of Korea at the end of World War 2. Kim Il Sung had Soviet advisors and military assistance, as he set up a Korean communist party with Soviet alignment, which initially worked with and then purged and destroyed the indigenous Korean communist movement. His ruthlessness, friendliness to Moscow and youthful charisma saw Kim Il Sung picked to lead the new state set up by Moscow to rival the UN/US backed Republic of Korea established in the south. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was born, and Kim Jong Il was 7 years old.
Kim Jong Il faced several childhood issues. One was death of his younger brother to drowning, another was death of his mother in 1949 - allegedly exacerbated when she found out about Kim Il Sung's serial adultery (the "Great Leader" title not quite appearing yet though), and then the Korean War causing Kim Il Sung to evacuate with his children and new wife to be Kim Song Ae.
The world heard absolutely nothing of Kim Jong Il till 1973. By then he had completed school and university, and was being groomed to be the successor. Kim Jong Il had by then gained a penchant for expensive liquor, fast cars, young pretty women (he used his father's pleasure troops to recruit pretty young girls from age 13 to be trained to please him once they reached around age 15-16, in large numbers), guns and movies. He lived the high life, drinking heavily (Hennessy especially), smoking and partying. He never flew, and would happily arrange execution of those who displeased him. His movie fetish became legendary. He led establishment of a major film studio in Pyongyang, with multiple sets for different eras and countries. He arranged kidnapping of actors, chefs and directors of Korean descent from south Korea and Japan, he also arranged for prostitutes to be brought in from various countries including Sweden. It is notable his father died at age 82, but he couldn't manage past 70.
Yes, 70. He is 70, not 69.
Between 1973 and 1980 he was referred to publicly in all media and books as "the Party Center" as he led day to day administrative business for his father. In that exercise he successfully led various purges and ensured only loyal followers progressed to support him and his father, he also helped spear the unprecedented personality cult around his father, which after 1980 was duplicated for him personally. The personality cult saw the glorification of a vacuous national ideology called "Juche", the constructions of statues and monuments across the country, and the completion of the cultural revolution that meant virtually all songs, films, books and art were focused on glorifying Kim Il Sung, the party, the state, Juche and all that was done by them. Everything good was because of his father and later himself. Everything that went wrong was due to the US imperialists, the south Korean puppet clique and the Japanese.
By the 1980s, Kim Jong Il had become the Dear Leader to his father the Great Leader and both operated as a pair. Yet Kim Jong Il's high squeaky voice meant he was largely a recluse, living the high life, whilst ordering stories and tales to be written about his exploits. Like his father it is claimed he gave "on the spot guidance" to hundreds of sites across the country. What he did was perpetuate a system that create possibly the biggest and longest lasting prison state in history.
North Koreans have largely lived planned lives. There is no private ownership of land, or indeed anything other than personal possessions. Regular re-issuing of currency destroys savings.
Overseas travel was strictly prohibited, as was travel from one's own town or village. Internal passports strictly regulated where anyone could travel, and life beyond one's home town was available only to few.
News media was strictly under total state control. All media reported to the people how lucky they were to live in the country and that people worldwide envied them. They were told that South Korea was a state of slaves where Americans raped girls and kept Koreans as servants and mistreated them, starving them. They were told everywhere else in the world was full of crime, starvation, war and deprivation. Satellite TV was unavailable. Foreign broadcasts were unavailable. Radios were banned except for locally made devices with no tuning dial so that only local signals could be picked up. The life in North Korea in the 1980s was hermetically sealed from the world. Foreign popular culture was unknown. Elvis Presley, Mickey Mouse, the Beatles and almost any movies, songs, fashions and brand from elsewhere were unknown, except to the elite.
Every day was planned. Jobs included political education every day, people were constantly told to work harder and longer and never complain, be grateful and be frugal. Every week every adult would go to criticism sessions where they must confess their own limitations and then accuse others of the same. Every week one would fear being made a scapegoat. Photos of both Kims were mandatory in every home, office, school classroom and public transport vehicle. They had to be kept in perfect clean condition or punishment would be meted out. Destroying newspapers with their images on them was forbidden. All children were taken from their parents several hours a day into creches to learn their first words "Kim Il Sung (and latterly Kim Jong Il) is your father". Children taught to owe everything to the Kims, and to put loyalty to them above their parents and friends. Taught to be snitches for the leaders. Taught to be part of the Police State. Red Guards from their young teens, loyalty to leader and party first, and they would be rewarded if they reported on relatives and friends who were disloyal.
Kim Jong Il was a part of that and changed nothing when his father died. When Soviet oil and aid ceased to flow, the economy was not reformed. It remained centrally controlled and managed, entrepreneurship remained illegal, no freedoms were granted. As a result, he continued to maintain a policy of terror. Individuals feared that if they were found to be disloyal, they and all their relatives would be imprisoned in gulags - slave labour camps where they would work 16 hour days, 7 days a week, eating next to nothing. Children from babies up would be included. Abuse, sadism and torture are rife - reports have also come out of chemical and biological weapons tests being applied to some inmates.
Even outside the gulag system the mass starvation of the late 1990s was due entirely to the failure of the entire economic system to be productive and let people respond to demand, supply and reason. Adopting "non-juche" farming techniques was forbidden, so millions starved, desperately trying to eat wildlife, bark, soil, weeds, whilst propaganda signs urged them to "only eat two meals a day". Kim Jong Il ate lobster, drank liquors and remained obese.
He could have reformed his country, what he did was next to nothing. The biggest revolution has been the introduction of a mobile phone network that pre-selected elite can use, but which is effectively allowing people to network without easy state surveillance. He has also seen, informally, the borders become more porous, as corruption and awareness of the outside world has spread among the more privileged classes, especially as technology has slipped into the country, with very cheap CD and DVD players, and CDs, DVDs from south Korea via Chinese sources. He stopped a military coup by raising the status of the military into the most powerful force in the country, essentially usurping the party.
North Korea today is a military state led by a personality cult family. Its main businesses are arms, narcotics, counterfeit currency and minerals. Kim Jong Il visited China several times and China showed him the results of its dramatic reforms, but he was unmoved - believing that it was too risky to allow Koreans to set up their own businesses and interact freely. The result is a dark, polluted, cold, state of terror, horror, starvation and fear.
Unlike official propaganda, and the parroted propaganda from Pyongyang's useful idiots in the Korean Friendship Association, who stick their deluded evil tongues up their figurative fundament of Kim Jong Il, he will be remembered as a short inadequate playboy murdering tyrant whose policies and approaches resulted in the deaths of millions, and suffering of tens of millions.
What is left is a country with exhausted broken infrastructure, an enormous military armed with weapons of mass destruction, unproductive agriculture, massive untapped mineral resources, a police state and a people whose lives have been wasted through ideological education and decades of lies and terror.
Reforming, modernising, freeing and re-educating this country is a monumental task. Consider fixing East Germany to be like helping an overweight smoker to become fit and normal size, fixing North Korea is like helping a senile centenarian become an Olympic athlete with a Ph. D.