- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SEOUL — Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident once rescued by the U.S. CIA from assassination who went on to become South Korean president and win a Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to engage North Korea, died of complications of pneumonia Tuesday. He was 83.

His decades-long defiance of the South Korean dictatorships throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and much of the ‘80s made him one of East Asia’s highest-profile dissidents.

As South Korea’s third democratically elected president, who took office in 1998, he won plaudits for battling a severe economic crisis by opening the South’s markets to foreign investment.

Perhaps his crowning achievement was the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize he received for efforts to make peace with North Korea, which included an unprecedented summit meeting with his counterpart, Kim Jong-il.

He often was compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, a fellow Nobel Peace laureate.

Born in Koreas poor southwestern region to a farming family, Mr. Kim won political office in 1961, a seat in the National Assembly. But that same year, Park Chung-hee seized power and voided the election.

South Korea was ruled as a military dictatorship for the next 26 years, a period of rapid economic expansion.

Mr. Kim established himself as the most prominent campaigner against dictators who held power until 1987, as both a champion of the poor and of democratization.

It was perilous calling. In 1971 a truck rammed his car off the road: He walked with a limp ever after.

In 1973, South Korean agents kidnapped him, chained him to a board and were about to hurl him off a boat into the sea off Japan when the CIA managed to halt the execution.

In 1980, he was sentenced to death for his alleged role in pro-democracy protests in his political home-base of Kwangju. Those protests resulted in some 200 deaths after the government dispatched commandos to put down the demonstrations.

The incoming Reagan administration intervened to prevent the death sentence from being carried out.

Throughout it all, he continued to demand democracy, but only after massive people power protests in 1987 did South Korea’s ruling generals agree to hold democratic elections.

Ten years and two presidents later, Mr. Kim became the first opposition leader to win the presidency, inheriting an economic crisis that for East Asia at the time rivaled the present global economic meltdown.

Mr. Kim immediately accepted a then-record $58 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and other international lenders, along with attached conditions that required South Korea to open its insular economy to foreign investment.

He forced the giant conglomerates to restructure, and he shocked South Koreans by letting the recalcitrant Daewoo Group — believed too big to fail — to collapse. At the time, it was the worlds largest bankruptcy.

Throwing open the previously closed capital and real estate markets to foreigners, he oversaw takeovers of local companies. It was a bitter pill, but South Korea managed to pull out of its recession within a year.

It was as would-be peacemaker with North Korea that Mr. Kim made perhaps his greatest mark as president.

Ditching decades of containment and confrontation, Mr. Kim promoted economic and political engagement with Pyongyang. He dubbed this strategy the “Sunshine Policy — named after the Aesops fable in which a warm sun, rather than a chill wind, compels a man to ditch his protective coat.

Mr. Kim enlisted legendary entrepreneur Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai Group and a one-time North Korean refugee himself, to open a joint tourism resort at the scenic Mount Kumgang on North Koreas east coast in 1998.

Such a project, which was soon channeling millions into Pyongyangs coffers, would have been unthinkable previously.

In 2000, Mr. Kim became the first South Korean leader to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-il, at a summit in Pyongyang.

Later that year, he became Koreas first Nobel Peace Price winner for his pro-democracy and peacemaking efforts.

The peninsula seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, but opposition from the incoming George W. Bush administration and reluctance by North Korea to follow through on promises made at the summit all but put reconciliation efforts on hold throughout the remainder if Mr. Kim’s five-year term in office.

Still, Mr. Kim never gave up his basic belief that engagement could bring peace and eventual reunification to the Korean peninsula, drawing criticism when he repeatedly declined to criticize Pyongyangs human rights records.

Mr. Kim’s engagement policy continued during the following administration of President Roh Moo-hyun against a backdrop of growing criticism and cynicism. North Korea went on to build and test two atomic bombs. South Korea’s engagement efforts virtually halted after conservative President Lee Myung-bak took power in 2008.

The last surviving ray of sunshine is the Kaesong joint industrial zone in North Korea. The Mount Kumgang tourist project was shuttered last summer after a Southern tourist was shot and killed after apparently straying into a restricted zone.

On Sunday, the chairwoman of Hyundai Asan, the Hyundai arm that carries out North Korean business, met with the North Korean leader in an effort to get economic engagement back on track.

Mr. Kim is survived by his wife, Lee Hee-ho, a prominent human rights activist, and three sons