Kim Il Sung, the Communist dictator who ruled North Korea for more than four decades and pushed the isolated regime to the brink of nuclear confrontation with the world, died of a heart attack Friday at age 82, Radio Pyongyang reported today.
Kim, the world's longest-ruling Communist leader and the object of a slavish personality cult, collapsed Thursday just a few weeks before a historic meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam aimed at easing the mounting nuclear tensions. Pyongyang's suspected development of nuclear weapons had raised an international outcry, leading to threats of economic sanctions and even some predictions of war.
Kim Il Sung, however, recently met with former President Jimmy Carter and expressed a desire to suspend the nation's nuclear program and open ties with the United States. As a result, the United States and North Korea had begun a third round of high-level talks in Geneva on Friday.
Kim's sudden death, however, throws the outlook into confusion and sets off the Korean peninsula's gravest crisis since the 1950 Korean War.
Kim Young Sam received the news a little after noon today. He immediately summoned his defense minister and ordered him to "prepare for all contingencies."
The armed forces have been put on alert, South Korean television reported. Kim was to shortly convene an emergency Cabinet meeting, it said.
In Washington, a spokesman said the White House was aware of the report and was attempting to get more details.
Residents of North Korea's capital wept hysterically after hearing the news, a Beijing-based reporter accredited to Pyongyang said today.
"There is mass shock and hysteria," said Krzysztof Darewicz, a correspondent for the Polish news agency PAP. "In our embassy the gardeners and translators just sit and cry. People who tried to go shopping said they could not because shop assistants do nothing but cry."
Darewicz said he had been in contact with his sources in Pyongyang by telephone.
Kim Il Sung will be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, whom analysts regard as more dangerous and unpredictable than his father.
Kim Jong Il, a reclusive figure who lacks his father's stature and genuine adoration by the people, is suspected of employing kidnaping, terrorism and guerrilla warfare to achieve his ends. He is said to have masterminded a 1983 bombing in Burma, now Myanmar, that killed 17 South Korean officials and the 1987 midair bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed all 115 people aboard.
Analysts believe a Kim Jong Il regime, failing to command loyalty, may be vulnerable to a coup. As a result, some say the senior Kim wanted to hand over a nuclear arsenal to his son to ensure the younger Kim's continued rule in the Communist world's only dynastic succession.
Kim Il Sung was lionized as a demigod and great guerrilla leader who liberated North Korea from the clutches of Japanese colonialism. The Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul said, however, that he actually had a "paltry record of guerrilla combat" and was plucked out of the then-Soviet army to run the newly won territory after World War II.
But under an extravagant personality cult, Kim was deified as having almost single-handedly driven out the Japanese; his image is memorialized in statues, posters, books, comics and lapel pins throughout the country.
North Korean propagandists under Kim referred to their country as a paradise, and visitors reported that Kim's people showed signs of respect toward the man they called the Great Leader.
Yet Kim's more than four decades as leader of the Communist northern half of Korea were marked by repression at home and constant military action against Western-aligned South Korea.
Although Kim was seen in the West as a destabilizing influence in world affairs, and in Beijing and Moscow as a problem ally, he was admired in parts of the Third World for providing his people with a high standard of living. He championed the ideology of juche , or self-reliance.
In recent years, however, crop failures and demands by Russia and China that Pyongyang begin paying for goods in hard currency have pushed North Korea to the brink of economic collapse. There have been widespread reports of severe food shortages, growing public unrest and an increasing number of defectors to China and elsewhere.
Korea, a Japanese colony from 1910 until 1945, was divided into Soviet and American zones after World War II. Kim attracted the world's attention on June 25, 1950, when he sent his troops across the military demarcation line in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula by force.
His forces scored important early victories, but within days of the attack a United Nations force under American command entered the war on the side of the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea. By October, Kim was a refugee in China.
After almost a million Chinese troops joined the fighting and pushed back the U.N. forces, Kim was reinstated in Pyongyang.