North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the mercurial strongman who styled himself as a "Dear Leader" while ruling over an impoverished police state, died at 69, according to North Korean state media.

Kim was believed to have suffered from multiple chronic illnesses, but his death — reportedly from a heart attack while traveling by train on Saturday morning — was sudden. He had been grooming a son to succeed him, and his death creates uncertainty about the future direction of a nation with few international friends but a nuclear weapons capability.

His foreign-educated son, Kim Jong Un, who is in his 20s and is seen by most as the next leader, is largely unknown outside North Korea, to the point that even his exact age is debated. The elder Kim had raised his son's profile and responsibilities over the last 18 months, but North Korea's murky inner workings make it uncertain whether that succession will take.

PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

For nearly two decades, Kim both defied and baffled international leaders with his isolated regime's nuclear ambition, inflammatory rhetoric and surprise attacks on South Korea, including the suspected March 2010 sinking of a Southern military ship and the bombing of a South Korea-controlled island in November of that year.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency meeting with the nation's top military officials and put them on high alert. But the move was seen as a formality, and there was little open sign of nervousness in Seoul at Kim's passing.

Many South Korean experts said that China faces the greatest risk if the leadership transition does not go smoothly and predicted that Beijing would soon send high-ranking officials to show support for the younger Kim.


FOR THE RECORD:
Kim Jong Il: An article in the Dec. 19 Section A about the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il gave conflicting details about his age. He was reported as being 69, his age according to the government. Also, his birth date was reported as Feb. 16, 1941, which would have made him 70. Although that is believed to be when he was born, government propaganda says it was a year later. —



Kim Jong Il's death was announced by a weeping anchorwoman on North Korean state television from the capital, Pyongyang. The diminutive leader, known for his love of women, cigars, cognac and gourmet foods, reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008 but had recently appeared in state media photos as he toured government facilities and embarked on two rare trips outside North Korea — to China and Russia.

Kim pulled his negotiators out of international nuclear talks in 2009, and followed that move by conducting an underground nuclear tests. Last November, he invited foreign scientists to North Korea to witness a North Korean uranium enrichment program, which is an important step in developing nuclear weapons.

The White House released a cautiously worded statement that said officers were "closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong Il is dead."

Outside North Korea, and perhaps inside as well, few are likely to mourn Kim's passing. But North Korea experts warn that the post-Kim nation could be just as repressive and even more dangerous without the stability Kim's absolute rule provided.

"There are a lot of people who will initially cheer his death until they see what comes next," said Scott Snyder of the Washington-based Asia Foundation.

Kim, who came to power in 1994 upon the death of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, led one of the world's most enduring dictatorships, a repressive regime that has long defied predictions of its demise. Against the odds, it survived into the 21st century while its people went hungry and its allies drifted away to pursue globalization and reform.

Kim Jong Il remained to the end an unrepentant communist, refusing to liberalize North Korea's economy even as his people became some of the world's poorest, with millions dying of starvation and tens of thousands imprisoned on charges of political crimes. While rival South Korea became one of the world's wealthiest nations, many in the North have earned less than a dollar a month.

Though his bouffant hairdo, oversize glasses and elevator shoes made him widely parodied, Kim also had a reputation as a canny survivor and negotiator. He weathered a storm of international condemnation to acquire and develop nuclear devices, one of which his country tested in 2006.

To the great irritation of U.S. diplomats, he repeatedly used the threat of nuclear weapons to exact political concessions and economic aid. At the same time, he ignored pressure to release an estimated 200,000 citizens kept in a gulag of prison camps, some for transgressions as minor as failing to keep portraits of Kim and his father on their walls.

"I loathe Kim Jong Il," former President George W. Bush once told journalist Bob Woodward, calling him a "pygmy" and a "spoiled child."