North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack on Dec. 17, 2011, according to a report by the country’s Communist Party. He had led the secretive and isolated nation since inheriting the regime of his father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Under Kim Jong-il’s leadership, North Korea developed nuclear weapons in the 2000’s, aggravating tensions with the international community. The country officially remains at war with South Korea and the United States and has few allies other than China. News of Kim Jong-il’s death unsettled North Korea’s neighbors, who feared it would lead to political instability in the nuclear-armed nation. Kim Jong-il had named his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his chosen successor.
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North Korea—officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—is one of two countries on the Korean Peninsula, which extends south from northeastern China. North Korea covers the northern half of the peninsula, and South Korea occupies the southern half. North Korea has a Communist government.
Various Korean and foreign governments ruled the Korean Peninsula from ancient times to the 1900’s. Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 until World War II ended in 1945. After Japan’s defeat in the war, Korea became divided. Communists gained control of the North in 1945. The separate governments of North and South Korea were formed in 1948, and Kim Il-sung became the leader of North Korea.
Kim Il-sung’s government was a rigid dictatorship. It taught people that Kim was the “sun” of all the people and could do no wrong. He ruled North Korea until his death in 1994. Kim’s son and designated heir, Kim Jong-il, succeeded his father as head of state. In the early 2000’s, Kim Jong-il’s rule was marked by a series of international disputes over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Between 1948 and 1971, North Korea was one of the most isolated countries in the world. During this period, the country’s foreign relations were conducted almost exclusively with other Communist nations, particularly China and the Soviet Union. During the 1970’s, however, military and economic assistance from both countries decreased.
When the Soviet Union and China began increasing their contacts with South Korea in the 1980’s, Kim Il-sung, fearing total isolation, tried to improve the nation’s relations with other countries. In 1988, he announced his intention to “develop economic and technical cooperation and cultural exchange” with countries that did not have formal relations with North Korea. Kim also repeated a proposal that North Korea and South Korea unite to form a single nation combining Communist and capitalist forms of government.
In 2002, North Korea held talks with Japan, the United States, and other countries in efforts to establish more friendly relations. However, these efforts were thwarted when North Korea revealed that it had a secret program to develop nuclear weapons. In late 2002 and early 2003, North Korea expelled international atomic energy inspectors from the country. In 2006, a nuclear test caused the United Nations to impose economic sanctions on North Korea.
Disagreements over North Korea’s nuclear program continued through the first decade of the 2000’s.
--World Book's People and Places