Kim Jong-Il (courtesy www.kremlin.ru)

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il is dead, according to North Korean state television. A tearful reporter announced his death to the North Korean people, stating that he died of ‘overwork’ while riding on a train on his way to provide ‘field guidance.’ A later report stated that he died of a heart attack. The government-controlled North Korean media, however, is notoriously untrustworthy. It is unclear what actually lead to Kim’s death, and the true cause of death may never be known.

Kim became North Korea’s Supreme Leader after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, in 1994. North Koreans suffer under a communist dictatorship with a uniquely powerful cult of personality around its leader. Kim’s birthday is a national holiday, his photos appear in nearly all public places, and many North Koreans attribute god-like qualities to him—including the ability to control the weather and set world-wide fashion trends. Meanwhile, North Koreans have essentially no civil liberties, no access to outside media or the Internet, and suffer some of the highest poverty and starvation rates in the world. Prison camps operate in the country where hundreds of thousands of political dissidents are indefinitely detained, including an estimated 50-70,000 who committed no crime other than being Christians.

North Korea has spent much of the last decade sabre-rattling, conducting its first nuclear weapons test in 2006, declaring an end of the 1953 Armistice in 2009, and torpedoing a South Korean navy ship and initiating an unprovoked attack on a South Korean island in 2010. These belligerent acts have sometimes (though not always) coincided with famines, unrest, or even Kim’s health setbacks inside North Korea, and are presumed to be intended as a ‘distraction’ for the North Korean people to shift focus away from unpleasant internal matters.

Kim’s youngest son, 27-year old Kim Jong-Un, has been formally announced as his successor. Due to North Korea’s reclusive nature and heavily-restricted media, it is unknown at this time whether Kim Jong-Un will take full power or share it in some arrangement with other members of the Kim family.