By THOMAS DURANTE and JENNIFER MADISON
Dead: Kim Jong Il, who became North Korea's leader in 1994, was 69 years old
Kim Jong Il, North Korea's diminutive but ruthless dictator who has led the communist regime since 1994, has died. He was 69.
Kim's death was announced tonight by state television from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
In a 'special broadcast' today, North Korea's state media said Kim died of a heart ailment on a train due to a 'great mental and physical strain' on Saturday during a 'high intensity field inspection.'
Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully documented by state media.
The South Korean military declared an emergency alert minutes after news of his death went public.
Traffic in the capital was moving as usual Monday, but the eyes of people in the streets were flooded with tears as they learned the news of Kim's death.
A foreigner contacted at Pyongyang's Koryo Hotel said hotel staff were in tears.
Kim's funeral is slated for December 28 in Pyongyang, with a mourning period to last until December 29.
Cause of death: Kim Jong Il died while aboard a train on Saturday, and was believed to have suffered some kind of heart ailment stemming from physical and mental exhaustion
The White House said Sunday that President Obama was notified of Kim's death.
Obama's Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement: 'We are closely monitoring reports that Kim Jong Il is dead.
'The President has been notified, and we are in close touch with our allies in South Korea and Japan.'
The news came as North Korea prepared for a hereditary succession.
Friendly gesture: Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to meet Kim Jong Il in 2009 to secure the release of two American journalists who were detained in North Korea
Kim Jong Il 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.
Even with a successor, there had been some fear among North Korean observers of a behind-the-scenes power struggle or nuclear instability upon the elder Kim's death.
Few firm facts are available when it comes to North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world, and little is clear about the origins of the man known as the 'Dear Leader.'
Successor: Kim Jong Il's third son Kim Jong Un (right) is expected to take over as the leader of North Korea
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.
Leader: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) and South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun pose in this 2007 photo during a joint statement in Pyongyang
Alarmed, regional leaders negotiated a disarmament-for-aid pact that the North signed in 2007 and began implementing later that year.
However, the process continues to be stalled, even as diplomats work to restart negotiations.
North Korea, long hampered by sanctions and unable to feed its own people, is desperate for aid.
Flooding in the 1990s that destroyed the largely mountainous country's arable land left millions hungry.
Dictator: Kim Jong Il rose began his reign of the Communist regime after the death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994
U.S. President George W. Bush, taking office in 2002, denounced North Korea as a member of an 'axis of evil' that also included Iran and Iraq. He later described Kim as a 'tyrant' who starved his people so he could build nuclear weapons.
'Look, Kim Jong Il is a dangerous person. He's a man who starves his people. He's got huge concentration camps. And... there is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon,' Bush said in 2005.
Kim was an enigmatic leader. But defectors from North Korea describe him as an eloquent and tireless orator, primarily to the military units that form the base of his support.
Surprise: South Korean soldiers react as they watch a news broadcast reporting the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the Seoul train station in Seoul, South Korea
The world's best glimpse of the man was in 2000, when the liberal South Korean government's conciliatory 'sunshine' policy toward the North culminated in the first-ever summit between the two Koreas and followed with unprecedented inter-Korean cooperation.
Health in doubt: Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008 but appeared relatively vigorous in photos and video from recent trips to China and Russia and in numerous trips around the country carefully
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 2004 film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone populated by puppets.
Kim was said to have cultivated wide interests, including professional basketball, cars and foreign films.
He reportedly produced several North Korean films as well, mostly historical epics with an ideological tinge.
Leaders embrace: Amid rumours of his failing health, Kim Jong Il trekked to places like China and Russia, where he met Vladimir Putin in 2002
A South Korean film director claimed Kim even kidnapped him and his movie star wife in the late 1970s, spiriting them back to North Korea to make movies for him for a decade before they managed to escape from their North Korean agents during a trip to Austria.
Kim rarely traveled abroad and then only by train because of an alleged fear of flying, once heading all the way by luxury rail car to Moscow, indulging in his taste for fine food along the way.
One account of Kim's lavish lifestyle came from Konstantin Pulikovsky, a former Russian presidential envoy who wrote the book 'The Orient Express' about Kim's train trip through Russia in July and August 2001.
Memorial: The North Korean national flag atop the country's embassy in Beijing was lowered to half staff to mourn the death of Kim Jong Il
Pulikovsky, who accompanied the North Korean leader, said Kim's 16-car private train was stocked with crates of French wine. Live lobsters were delivered in advance to stations.
A Japanese cook later claimed he was Kim's personal sushi chef for a decade, writing that Kim had a wine cellar stocked with 10,000 bottles, and that, in addition to sushi, Kim ate shark's fin soup - a rare delicacy - weekly.
'His banquets often started at midnight and lasted until morning. The longest lasted for four days,' the chef, who goes by the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, was quoted as saying.