A dictator who brutalised his people, destabilised the world, and then left it all to his son

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The man who presided over the state too crazy to fail is dead. Kim Jong-il, the pint-sized tyrant who never outgrew his khaki jumpsuits, is said to have died from a heart attack while on an inspection tour on board a train, aged 69 (or, more likely, 70).

The grief of his people, at least those captured by the cameras, was apparently unbounded: the newsreader on state TV clad in a formal black hanbok to make the announcement was ashen-faced and in tears, while on the streets of the capital Pyongyang women in puffa jackets and fur coats rocked, waved their hands and slapped the pavement in woe.

The scenes, if dubious to a western eye, appeared spontaneous and unrehearsed. Whether the result of genuine grief or fearful obedience to national protocol, they underlined how remote the hermit state remains not only from Europe but from every other country in the world, its closest neighbours to the north, south and east included.

In the 30 years since China began liberalising its economy under Deng Xiaoping's dictum that "to grow rich is glorious", North Korea succeeded in remaining immobile. It did so at immense cost to its people: some three million are believed to have died in the famine which climaxed in 1997, three years after Kim Jong-il succeeded his father in power. But if Kim Jong-il's chief goal was to avoid the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu and Saddam Hussein – after the invasion of Iraq he disappeared for four months and dodged between Pyongyang's supposedly nuke-proof buildings using a network of tunnels – his career can be considered a remarkable success.

It began with a lie and by the end he presided over a state which was a lie from top to bottom. He succeeded in keeping news of the state's burgeoning economic problems from reaching the ears of his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, who was tempted belatedly to follow China down the liberalisation path. Smaller and far less imposing than the elder Kim, who had been selected and groomed as a puppet leader by his Soviet minders before 1945, he cunningly managed the transfer of power into his own hands by means of another lie, persuading his people that the old man had not really died at all but was taking care of the nation's destiny from above as "the Eternal President".

Even in death Kim Il-sung remained "the Great Leader", while, with the grotesque flair for public relations he demonstrated throughout his 17 years at the top, the younger Kim became "the Dear Leader", the Peter Pan with the Billy Bunter waddle and the stand-up hair, depicted in hagiographic state portraits guffawing with laughter with his comrades or ingenuously applauding his own speeches. The man whose growth, both physical and mental, appeared stunted on the cusp of adulthood was the perfect ruler of a state which refused to grow up.

Kim Jong-il was born on a Red Army base in the far east of Russia and spent part of his childhood in China; a more auspicious birth was invented for him, in a partisan camp atop the nation's highest mountain, his appearance apparently announced by a swallow and accompanied by a double rainbow and a new star. His official birth was also postponed for a year, allowing him to be depicted as precisely 30 years younger than his father.

But if he was born into a world of make-believe, he was quick to seize the importance of enhancing and filling out the fairy tale. "In the early 1960s," wrote the Korea expert Jasper Becker, "Kim Jong-il took charge of propaganda in what had become the most regimented society in history. Koreans had to worship the whole family going back generations as divinely sanctioned saviours of the Korean nation and the whole universe." The most preposterous features of pre-war Japanese emperor-worship and Stalin's personality cult were fused together.

Over the years escapees provided astounding glimpses into the life of luxury which he fashioned for himself. A former chef revealed how he jetted around the world snapping up delicacies for his master's table: caviar from Iran and Uzbekistan, melons and grapes from China, sashimi from Japan, papaya and durian from Thailand, beer from the Czech Republic and Denmark for bacon. Once Kim kidnapped South Korea's best film director and forced him to invigorate the north's desperate movie industry.

Those who defied the regime paid a terrible price in a gulag archipelago which rivalled the worst of Stalin's. One guard in the camps told of his shock on first arriving and seeing walking skeletons of skin and bone, many with festering scars where they had been beaten, many missing ears which had been torn off. The guards were taught to regard them as sub-human, and they were killed in the cruellest ways, dragged behind jeeps or burnt or buried alive. A camp survivor spoke of how the prisoners were obliged to watch those sentenced to die being shot until their bodies were "honeycombed" with bullets.

And all the while the child-tyrant with the platform soles betrayed a keen understanding of what was required for his nation's, and his family's, survival. He maintained a state of permanent tension with the south, never allowing a peace treaty to be signed, more than 60 years after the end of hostilities; exacerbating that tension with periodic outbursts of carefully calibrated aggression; building, and then testing, nuclear weapons to ensure the West's (and Japan's) respect; keeping more than a million of the nation's population of 23 million under arms. And making sure that the ignorance of his people about the true state of affairs beyond the border remained as complete as possible.

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