A look back at the life of Kim Jong Il
04:41 - Source: CNN

Laura Ling, the American journalist detained in North Korea in 2009, and her sister, Lisa Ling, join Anderson Cooper on Monday for an exclusive look at the North Korean regime. Tune in to “AC360º” at 8 p.m. ET.

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Health of North Korean leader was shrouded in secrecy

North Korean state media reported Kim died of a heart attack

In 2009, U.S. officials said he was in poor health

CNN  — 

Like most aspects of his life, the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was shrouded in secrecy.

Though the reclusive nation revealed little about his well-being, speculation about him – and about who would succeed him – in the rest of the world intensified in recent years as reports of his failing health circulated.

Kim died of a heart attack Saturday, according to North Korean state-run media agency KCNA.

Kim had been on a trip and had suffered “great mental and physical strain,” said a broadcaster who choked up as she made the announcement Monday. The KCNA report blamed his death on “overwork.”

“The heart of Kim Jong Il stopped beating, but his noble and august name and benevolent image will always be remembered,” according to a message on KCNA’s website.

Kim had received treatment for cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases, according to KCNA. His father, Kim Il Sung, whom he succeeded in 1994, also died of a heart attack. The elder Kim died at 82.

Kim was believed to have had a stroke in 2008, and the intelligence community subsequently speculated about his health. A July 2009 report released by WikiLeaks revealed that U.S. officials in South Korea believed that Kim’s health was failing and that he was “unlikely to live more than three to five years.”

In recent years, Kim had grown frailer, appearing in public with a thinner frame and gaunt cheeks. There were even rumors that he had pancreatic cancer, much to the chagrin of North Korea, which accused the West of meddling and exaggerating his medical status.

In the West, he was routinely mocked for his penchant for monochromatic outfits, large sunglasses, his platform shoes (he was 5-foot-2) and his roundness. But his weight had another meaning.

He was purported to have indulged his taste for finer things in life, with a fondness for Hennessy cognac, while hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death during his 17-year rule.

North Korea has been struck by food shortages, because of natural and man-made problems, leading to mass starvation.

In the 1990s, floods and economic troubles triggered a famine. The North Korean regime said that almost 250,000 people died between 1995 and 1998, but some outside groups say the death toll was 10 times higher. The country continues to face chronic economic problems, crop failures and food shortages.