Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea for 17 years, continuing a government focused on the principle of self-reliance and a cult of personality founded by his father, Kim Il Sung.
There is not much reliable personal information about the enigmatic Mr. Kim. According to local legend, he was born on North Korea's Mount Paekdu under rainbows and the appearance of a new star in 1942. But his birth is believed to have actually taken place in Siberia in the Soviet Union in 1941.
Little is known about Mr. Kim's childhood. He graduated from Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University in 1964.
In the 1970s, Mr. Kim was named to leadership positions in the ruling party, beginning two decades of grooming to replace his father as the country's leader.
He had a reputation for a lavish lifestyle that included a fondness for fine foods, cognac and women, which continued after he took power following his father's death in 1994.
Mr. Kim was also said to be a fan of the cinema. In addition to owning a large movie collection, he produced several films of his own. A South Korean director and actress said they were kidnapped and forced to make films for the man North Koreans called “Dear Leader.”
He was accused of playing a role in a 1983 bombing that killed 17 South Korean officials visiting Burma, as well as the 1987 bombing of a Korea Air flight that killed 115 people. Neither allegation has been proven.
Mr. Kim continued his revered father's governing principles, but lacked his charisma. Still, Mr. Kim cultivated his own force of personality exemplified by his bouffant hairdo, jumpsuits and large sunglasses.
He poured the impoverished and reclusive country's resources into the military, creating the world's fifth-largest force, while many North Koreans suffered from hunger.
His international relations were dominated by North Korea's push to develop nuclear arms. Former U.S. president George W. Bush called Mr. Kim a “tyrant” who starved his own people so he could build nuclear weapons.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006, and in 2007 agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for aid. But the country is estimated to have enough nuclear material to produce several atomic bombs, and multi-party negotiations to convince North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program have stalled.
Mr. Kim's marital status was not clear, but he is said to have been married once, with at least a few other companions, and has at least three sons. His youngest son, Kim Jong Un, has been groomed as his successor.