North Korea Leader Kim Jong Il Has Died

By EVAN RAMSTAD

SEOUL - Kim Jong Il, the dictator who used fear and isolation to maintain power in North Korea and the threat of nuclear weapons to menace his neighbors and the U.S., has died, North Korean state television reported early Monday.

His death opens a new and potentially dangerous period of transition and instability for North Korea and northeast Asia. Mr. Kim in September 2010 tapped his youngest son to succeed him, though it isn't known whether the son will take control right away.

Mr. Kim, who was 69 or 70 years old, according to varying accounts, died from fatigue during a train ride on Saturday, a weeping television announcer said.

Mr. Kim took power after the death in July 1994 of his father, Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948. The country, a declining communist industrial power when he took control, fell into abject poverty under his rule. However, Mr. Kim continued to command attention and relevance in the world by building nuclear weapons and selling other arms.

He staked his legitimacy on his father's 46-year rule. Kim Jong Il never called himself president of North Korea. Instead, he bestowed on his father after death the title of "eternal president," while he took lesser titles such as chairman of national defense and general secretary of the main political party.

Getty Images

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il waves from a car after the meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Aug. 24.

Mr. Kim suffered a stroke-like illness in August 2008 and was incapacitated for two months, forcing him to begin to groom a successor.

In 2009, reports surfaced that Mr. Kim had chosen the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong Eun, to carry on the family's regime. Those reports were confirmed in September 2010, when Mr. Kim appointed his son, who is believed to be 27 or 28 years old, a four-star general in the North Korean military and to high-level posts in the ruling political party.

On Monday, North Korean state television said the younger Mr. Kim will lead the country.

South Korea stocks were down 4.6% on the news early Monday, and officials were closely monitoring levels of the won against other currencies.