Mr. Kim formally succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, less than three years after the collapse of North Korea’s longtime sponsor, the Soviet Union. With the end of Soviet trade subsidies and security guarantees, Mr. Kim found himself in charge of a broken and vulnerable country.
He plowed his nation’s scant resources into nuclear arms and attempts to build missiles capable of striking the West Coast of the United States, and he used what many North Korea watchers called nuclear blackmail to extract international aid in the form of fuel and food.
Mr. Kim had a knack for keeping the world on edge. North Korea shot ballistic missiles over Japan in 1998 and detonated a small nuclear device in 2006. It sold missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, among other countries, stoking fears that North Korean-made weapons of mass destruction would find their way to terrorists.
Axis of evil
In response to this volatile menace, President George W. Bush identified North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech. From 1988 to October 2008 — when a new agreement was reached on nuclear inspections — North Korea kept company with Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In North Korea, Mr. Kim was relentlessly propagandized as “Dear Leader,” a name meant to evoke a benevolent force protecting the country from destructive outside influences. His father, dubbed “President for Eternity” after his death, had been “Great Leader.” The two men built a cult of personality that was dangerous to challenge.
Echoing his father’s policies, Mr. Kim tolerated no dissent, and a vast network of secret police and brutal labor camps enforced his rule. He restricted all travel abroad, and those caught trying to defect were severely punished.
During Mr. Kim’s reign, North Korea maintained one of the world’s largest standing armies, despite a famine from 1996 to 1999 that killed as many as 1 million people. Food shortages persisted because of the government’s reluctance to open the country to international aid organizations.
Like his father, Kim Il Sung — who founded the North Korean state, with Soviet patronage, after World War II — Mr. Kim put great emphasis on the doctrine of “juche,” or self-reliance. Experts said this accounted for his unpredictability when negotiating with other governments or with nongovernmental organizations that wanted to ship grain to hundreds of thousands of starving North Koreans.
North Korea’s treaty violations and its production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium didn’t help the situation as they repeatedly disrupted disarmament-for-aid negotiations involving South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.