- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Former President Kim Dae-jung, who survived assassination attempts during his years as a dissident and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation efforts with communist North Korea, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Kim, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia since last month, died shortly after 1:40 p.m. (0440 GMT), said Park Chang-il, chief of Severance Hospital in Seoul. He said Kim suffered respiratory distress, a pulmonary embolism and multiple organ failure.

The Nobel laureate’s wife, three sons and ex-aides were at his side, according to lawmaker Park Jie-won, Kim’s former presidential chief of staff and culture minister.

South Korean leaders, from friends to former foes, had been paying their respects for days at the hospital to a man whose epic career spanned South Korea’s political upheaval, from the decades of harsh authoritarian rule to transformation into a full-fledged democracy.

“We lost a great political leader,” President Lee Myung-bak said in a statement. “His accomplishments and aspirations to achieve democratization and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered by the people.”

As a pro-democracy opposition lawmaker, Kim built a reputation as a passionate champion of human rights and democracy who fought against South Korea’s military dictatorships.

He survived several suspected assassination attempts, including a dramatic 1973 abduction at a Tokyo hotel by South Korean agents.

And as president from 1998-2003, he was architect of the “Sunshine Policy” of reaching out to wartime rival North Korea as a way to encourage reconciliation.

His efforts led to an unprecedented thaw in relations with the North and culminated in a historic North-South summit — the first on the divided peninsula — and a jubilant meeting in Pyongyang with leader Kim Jong Il in 2000.

His successor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, maintained the Sunshine Policy but Kim Dae-jung saw his work unravel when Lee, a conservative, took office in 2008, and conditioned aid to the North on the regime’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.

North Korea cut off nearly all reconciliation ties last year and suspended several joint projects that had sprung up in the wake of warming relations.

As international tensions rose over Pyongyang’s continued nuclear defiance, Kim rallied until the end for Seoul to find a way to engage the North.

He said in January that Koreans on both sides of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone must be mindful of their “painful and tragic” history and work together to establish peace and security on the Korean peninsula.

“The South and North have never been free from mutual fear and animosity over the past half-century — not even for a single day,” he told reporters. “When we cooperate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity.”

Kim was devastated by Roh’s suicide three months ago amid a broadening corruption probe focused on the Roh family.

“I feel like half of my body has crumbled,” Kim said after learning Roh had jumped to his death in May.

On Monday, North Korea announced it would allow some of the joint projects, including the reunions of families divided for decades by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Though several dates are given for his birth, Kim was born into a farming family in South Jeolla province in Korea’s southwest when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule.

He was schooled in the port city of Mokpo in a region that later became the base of his political support. Kim successfully went into business after World War II ended Japanese rule.

Kim survived the brutal three-year war that left the Korean peninsula divided, but as South Korea’s fledgling government veered toward authoritarianism, he resolved to go into politics.

After three losing bids, he was elected to the National Assembly in 1961. Days later, Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee staged a military coup and dissolved parliament.

Kim ran for the presidency a decade later, nearly defeating Park. That close call prompted Park to tinker with the Constitution to guarantee his rule in the future.

Just weeks after the presidential election, Kim was in a traffic accident he believed was an attempt on his life. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp and sometimes used a cane.

Kim persevered in the face of near-successful attempts by the military-ruled government to shut him down.

In 1973, suspected South Korean agents broke into his Tokyo hotel room and dragged him to a ship where he claimed they planned to dump him at sea.

The would-be assassins aborted the plan following intervention by U.S. officials, who sent an American military helicopter flying low over the ship.

“You played a crucial role in saving my husband’s life when he was kidnapped in 1973 and have helped us greatly since then,” Kim’s wife, Lee Hee-ho, told Donald Gregg, a former CIA station chief and U.S. ambassador to Seoul.

Gregg visited Kim at the hospital last week during a trip to Seoul. “My husband would rise from the bed if he knew you were here,” Lee told him.

Upon his return to Seoul, Kim immediately was put under house arrest by the Park government and then imprisoned. His release came only after Park’s assassination by own his spy chief in late 1979.

Kim was pardoned a few months later. But the drama did not end there.

Weeks after Park’s death, military leader Chun Doo-hwan seized power. Five months later, tens of thousands in the southern city of Gwangju took to the streets to protest the junta’s rule.

Tank-led troops suppressed the uprising, killing some 200 people by official accounts. Activists say the death toll was far higher.

Accusing Kim of fomenting the uprising in his political stronghold, a military tribunal sentenced the opposition leader to death. Washington intervened, and the sentence was commuted to life and later reduced to 20 years in prison.

Kim refused to consider it a setback.

“We should love fate and accept the given fate … and open a new possibility in the midst of hardship and despair,” Kim wrote in a prison letter to his wife.

A few months later, his sentence was suspended, and he left for exile in the U.S., remaining there until 1985.

He continued to push for democracy and after unsuccessfully running twice for the presidency, Kim — who spent decades in the opposition — was elected to the nation’s top office in 1997 at the age of 72.

Thousands of South Koreans in Seoul, Gwangju and elsewhere danced in the streets to celebrate the rise of a longtime dissident to the presidential Blue House.

Demonstrating immense forgiveness, he pushed to pardon Chun, who had been sentenced in 1996 for mutiny and treason.

But the defining moment of the Kim presidency was his historic meeting with the North Korean leader Kim in Pyongyang in 2000.

The summit eased decades of tensions and ushered in a new era of unprecedented reconciliation. Families divided for decades held tearful reunions, and South Koreans began touring North Korea’s famed scenic spots.

His efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize, and he remains South Korea’s only Nobel laureate.

“In my life, I’ve lived with the conviction that justice wins,” he said in accepting the honor. “Justice may fail in one’s lifetime, but it will eventually win in the course of history.”

But critics accused him of propping up the communist regime with aid, reportedly up to $1.3 billion.

And his legacy was tarnished by revelations that his administration made secret payments to North Korea before the 2000 summit. Kim defended the payments as a way to secure peace with the North.

Kim is survived by his wife and three sons; Kim Hong-up, Kim Hong-il and Kim Hong-gul. His first wife, Cha Yong-ae, died in 1960.

Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jean H. Lee contributed to this report.

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