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Dear Leader carried on the Cold War

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.

Inheriting power from his father, he led his country through a devastating famine while frustrating the US and other global powers with an on-again, off-again approach to talks on giving up nuclear weapons in return for food. Kim was one of the last remnants of the Cold War era.

His death after 17 years in power was announced today by state television from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The country's 'Dear Leader' -- who reputedly had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine -- was believed to have had diabetes and heart disease. He thought to be 69.

Kim Jong Il inherited power from his father, revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. He had been groomed for 20 years to lead the communist nation founded by his guerrilla fighter-turned-politician father and built according to the principle of "juche," or self-reliance.

In September 2010, Kim Jong Il named his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.

Few firm facts are available when it comes to North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world, and not much is clear about 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.

Kim Il Sung, who for years fought for independence from Japan, emerged as a communist leader after returning to Korea in 1945 after Japan was defeated in World War II.

With the peninsula divided between the Soviet-administered north and the US-administered south, Kim rose to power as North Korea's first leader in 1948.

The North invaded the South in 1950, sparking a war that would last three years, kill millions of civilians and leave the peninsula divided by a Demilitarised Zone that remains one of the world's most heavily fortified areas.

Kim Jong Il took over after his father died in 1994. He faithfully carried out his father's policy of "military first," devoting much of the country's scarce resources to its troops even as his people suffered a prolonged famine.

Kim also sought to build up the country's nuclear arms arsenal, which culminated in North Korea's first nuclear test explosion in October 2006. Kim's marital status wasn't clear but he is believed to have married once and had at least three other companions. He had at least three sons with two women, as well as a daughter by a third.