SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

- Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died. He was 69.

Kim's death on Saturday was announced today by the state television from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The communist country's "Dear Leader" - reputed to have had a taste for cigars, cognac and gourmet cuisine - died of heart failure.

The news came as North Korea prepared for a hereditary succession. Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. In September 2010, Kim Jong Il unveiled his third son, the twenty-something Kim Jong Un, as his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts.

North Korean legend has it that Kim was born on Mount Paekdu, 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 Korea's colonial ruler, Japan, from a base in Russia, 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 U.S.-administered south, Kim rose to power as North Korea's first leader in 1948 while Syngman Rhee became South Korea's first president.

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 Demilitarized Zone that today remains one of the world's most heavily fortified.

Kim Jong Il was 33 when his father anointed him his eventual successor and there were early signs the younger Kim would maintain - or surpass - his father's hard-line stance.

In 1987, the bombing of a Korean Air Flight killed all 115 people on board; a North Korean agent who confessed to planting the device said Kim ordered the downing of the plane himself.

Kim Jong Il took over after his father died in 1994 and 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 from a prolonged famine - and built the world's fifth-largest military, complete with nuclear capability.

Kim cut a distinctive, if oft ridiculed, figure. Short and pudgy at 5-foot-3, he wore platform shoes and sported a permed bouffant. His trademark attire of jumpsuits and sunglasses was mocked in such films as "Team America: World Police," a movie populated by puppets that was released in 2004.

Kim's eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 38, is believed to have fallen out of favor with his father after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001 saying he wanted to visit Disney's Tokyo resort.