Kim Dae-jung, 83, Ex-President of South Korea, Dies

posted 2009-08-18 09:54:04 by stevemay

Kim Dae-jung, a dissident who survived a death sentence and an assassination attempt by military dictators before winning the South Korean presidency and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, died on Tuesday. He was 83.

Mr. Kim had been under treatment for pneumonia since July 13 and died of “heart failure caused by internal organ dysfunctions," said Park Chang-il, president of Severance Hospital. Mr. Kim is survived by his wife, Lee Hee-ho, and three sons.

As president from 1998 till 2003, Mr. Kim was the first opposition leader to take power in South Korea.

Once vilified by his rivals as a Communist, Mr. Kim flew to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, in 2000 to meet that nation’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in the first summit meeting between the Koreas. That meeting led to an unprecedented détente on the divided Korean Peninsula, which remains technically at war because no peace treaty was signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Under Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy,” the two Koreas connected roads and railways across their shared border. They jointly built an industrial park. Two million South Koreans visited a North Korean mountain resort. And in a scene televised worldwide, aging Koreans separated by the war a half century ago tearfully hugged one another in temporary family reunions.

“Through his political dedication and persecution, he has come to symbolize South Korea’s democratization,” Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul, said Tuesday. “He also broke longstanding taboos in South Korea — he led the liberals to the fore of South Korean politics after decades of conservative rule, and he changed North Korea’s status among South Koreans from an enemy to be vilified to someone that can coexist with the South and can be engaged.”

But Mr. Kim “never overcame the limits” of an old-style South Korean political boss who had depended on and stoked regionalism and “privately owned political parties,” which he created and demolished for his own political gains, Mr. Kang said.

Forced to use a wheelchair and shuttled in and out of hospitals for treatment of pneumonia, Mr. Kim spent his last years lamenting his crumbling legacy. Tired of giving billions of dollars of aid and trade to the Communist North but getting little in return, South Koreans in 2007 abandoned the policies of Mr. Kim and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, by electing Lee Myung-bak, a conservative leader who promised a tougher stance on Pyongyang.

Inter-Korean relations chilled as North Korea tested nuclear weapons, first in 2006 and again in May, and as the United States, South Korea and Japan led the call for tighter sanctions on North Korea. The government in Pyongyang retreated into belligerent isolation after years of hesitant steps toward openness, though Mr. Kim’s critics have dismissed those earlier gestures as a mere ploy by the North to wring more aid from the South.

Mr. Kim became a symbol of the South Korean struggle for democracy and the dream of reconciliation, and eventual reunification, with North Korea. When the Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 2000, it was in recognition of his struggle as a pro-democracy campaigner as well as his vision in overcoming five decades of mistrust and hostility to engineer the Korean summit meeting.

He was often praised by his Western supporters as the “Nelson Mandela of Asia,” although Mr. Kim had a more checkered reputation among his own people.

Mr. Kim was born on Dec. 3, 1925, to a farming family at Haeuido, a small island that was part of Cholla Province in the southwest, a region scorned by other presidents who hailed from the rival Kyongsang Province in the southeast.

After attending a vocational high school, Mr. Kim dabbled in running a shipping company and a newspaper. In 1961, on his fifth try, he was elected to the National Legislature. A week later, Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee staged a coup, the beginning of his 18-year iron-fisted rule.

A skilled rabble-rouser who spoke for political freedom and for the downtrodden, Mr. Kim quickly emerged as an opposition leader and Mr. Park’s nemesis, especially after he won 45 percent of the vote running against the incumbent dictator in his first presidential try in 1971.

His image as a persecuted dissident expanded abroad in 1973, when agents from Mr. Park’s notorious spy agency, known at the time as the K.C.I.A., kidnapped Mr. Kim from a hotel room in Tokyo, where he was leading an exile movement for democracy in South Korea.