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Kim Jong-Il dies at 69 after 17 years in power in North Korea

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PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Even as the world changed around him, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il remained firmly in control, ruling absolutely at home and keeping the rest of the world on edge through a nuclear weapons program.

Kim Jong-Il assumed power in 1994 after the death of his father. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Inheriting power from his father, he led his nation through a devastating famine while frustrating the U.S. and other global powers with an on-again, off-again approach to talks on giving up nuclear arms in return for food and other assistance. Kim was one of the last remnants of a Cold War-era that ended years earlier in most other countries.

His death after 17 years as leader was announced Monday by state television two days after he died. North Korea's news agency reported that he had died at 8:30 a.m. Saturday after having a heart attack on a train, adding that he had been treated for cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases for a long time. He was 69.

Kim, who reputedly had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but he had appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country documented by state media.

North Korea test-fires missile, report says

South Korea's Yonhap news agency says North Korea has conducted a short-range missile test on the day the country announced the death of leader Kim Jong-Il.

South Korean military officials said Monday they couldn't immediately confirm the report. Yonhap cited unidentified government officials as saying the missile test occurred off the east coast.

North Korea is urging its people to rally behind Kim Jong-Il's young son and heir-apparent Kim Jong Un. The world is watching warily for signs of instability in a nation pursuing nuclear weapons.

South Korea has put its military on high alert against the North's 1.2 million-strong armed forces. President Barack Obama agreed by phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to closely monitor developments.

Nuclear ambitions one of Jong-Il's hallmarks

His longtime pursuit of nuclear weapons and his military's repeated threats to South Korea and the U.S. stoked worries that fighting might break out again on the Korean peninsula or that North Korea might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist movements. The Korean War ended more than 50 years ago in a cease-fire, and the two sides remain technically in a state of war.

Kim Jong Il took power after his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. He unveiled his third son, the twenty-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor in September 2010, putting him in high-ranking posts. On Monday, the North Korean news agency dubbed the son a "great successor" as the country rallied around him.

Few firm facts are available when it comes to North Korea, and not much is clear about Kim Jong Il, the man known as the "Dear Leader."

North Korean legend has it that Kim was born on Mount Paektu, one of Korea's most cherished sites, in 1942, a birth heralded in the heavens by a pair of rainbows and a brilliant new star. Soviet records, however, indicate he was born in Siberia, in 1941.

His father, who for years fought for independence from Korea's colonial ruler, Japan, from a base in Russia, emerged as a communist leader after returning to Korea in 1945.

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