He took the country’s reins in 1994, succeeding his father, the founder of Communist North Korea, but Kim Jong-il’s grooming as the “Dear Leader” started years before and included a Maltese twist.

He used to become irritable when hungry

Mr Kim’s death was announced yesterday by North Korea’s state television.

He is reported to have died aged 69 from a heart attack on Saturday and will be succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un, who is in his 20s.

Unlike his son, who was only introduced to the world as his successor last year, Mr Kim’s ascendancy to the top was a lengthy journey under the wings of his revered father Kim-il Sung.

Little is known of Mr Kim – he led the world’s most oppressive and secretive country, where the state controls every aspect of private and public life.

But in the 1970s, Mr Kim was in Malta to learn English, possibly as part of an exchange that included a secret agreement between the Labour government and the North Korean regime for the provision of military training and weapons.

No official documentation exists of Mr Kim’s Malta stopover and any past attempts to coax comments from government officials at the time has always been met with cynicism.

His English teacher at the time, University professor Daniel Massa, recalls a jovial character, who was motivated to learn.

The picture Prof. Massa paints is far removed from the image of a stupid man often portrayed by the South Korean media, even if Mr Kim’s vanity and playboy attitude are documented by diplomats who have met him.

“I used to teach him on a one-to-one basis and it was all about situational English; learning the right words and sentences for particular day-to-day situations,” Prof. Massa says.The teaching lasted for a whole academic year but Prof. Massa added initially he was not aware who Mr Kim was. A group of seven North Korean students had come to learn English in Malta but Mr Kim did not take his lessons with the rest and was instead assigned to Prof. Massa.

“I only got to know who he was when somebody pointed out that Korean security agents were standing outside my office window and door while I used to teach him,” he recalls.

Learning of Mr Kim’s high profile did little to change Prof. Massa’s attitude. He continued teaching North Korea’s future leader like any other student.

Known for his fondness of gourmet food and drink, especially cognac, Mr Kim did give an early warning in the 1970s of his weaknesses, as Prof. Massa attests.

“He used to become irritable when hungry, especially when lessons overstepped their time limit and impinged on his lunch break.”

In very typical North Korean style little else is known about Mr Kim’s Malta stay almost 40 years ago but this comes as no surprise because not much more is known about the reclusive leader in his death.

Mr Kim’s funeral is expected to take place on December 28.

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