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SKorea loses great leader Kim Dae-jung

world Updated: Aug 19, 2009 11:09 IST

AP
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South Korea lost its most fervent champion of peace and democracy with the death of former President Kim Dae-jung, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to foster reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

Born when Korea was one nation, Kim campaigned until the end for reconciliation with the communist North, defending his "Sunshine Policy" of openness even as he watched a decade of progress unravel under a new, conservative government.

He died at a Seoul hospital on Tuesday after battling pneumonia for weeks, officials at Severance Hospital said. He was 85. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il expressed his "deep condolences" to the ex-president's family in a rare message between the two countries still technically at war.

"The feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation," Kim Jong Il said according to a Wednesday report by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The two Kims made history when they shook hands at the start of a landmark summit in Pyongyang in 2000, vowing to put decades of enmity behind them and to work toward reconciliation. The next 10 years saw a flowering of inter-Korean relations.

But some called Kim Dae-jung, known as "DJ," a leftist liberal who propped up the North Korean regime with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Revelations that his administration made secret payments to North Korea before the summit in 2000 tarnished his reputation. Kim defended the payments as a way to secure peace with the North.

Still, even foes mourned his death, praising him as a tireless defender of democracy in a career that spanned South Korea's political upheaval, from its early years as a military dictatorship to its transformation into a full-fledged democracy.

"We lost a great political leader," said President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative rival. "His accomplishments and aspirations to achieve democratization and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered by the people." Kim was a resilient fighter who survived at least five attempts on his life. An outspoken dissident, he also endured torture, kidnapping, prison, exile and several assassination attempts, including a dramatic 1973 abduction from a Tokyo hotel by South Korean intelligence agents.

His election to the presidential Blue House in 1997, after 40 years in the opposition, sent supporters in his southwestern home region dancing in the streets.

In Seoul on Tuesday, mourners burned incense and laid white chrysanthemums at a makeshift site outside City Hall. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who served as a vice foreign minister in Kim's administration, and former President Kim Young-sam were among leaders who paid their respects at the hospital.

President Barack Obama also extended his condolences to Kim's family and the Korean people, saying Kim's "personal sacrifices on behalf of freedom are inspirational and should never be forgotten."

Though the exact date of his birth was unclear, 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 started a business after the end of Japanese occupation and it survived the 1950-53 war on the Korean peninsula. But as South Korea's government veered toward authoritarianism, he chose to go into politics and quickly marked himself as a dissident.

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, who altered the constitution to guarantee his rule in the future. Just weeks after the election, Kim was in a traffic accident he believed was an attempt on his life. For the rest of his days, he walked with a limp and often leaned on a cane.

In 1973, 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 US 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 US ambassador to Seoul.

Gregg visited Kim at the hospital last week. "My husband would rise from the bed if he knew you were here," Lee told him. Upon his return to Seoul in 1973, Kim was put under house arrest and then imprisoned. His release came only after Park's assassination by 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, one of Kim's political strongholds, took to the streets to protest the junta.

Troops suppressed the uprising, killing some 200 people by official accounts. Accusing Kim of fomenting the uprising, a military tribunal sentenced him to death. Washington again intervened, and the sentence was commuted to life and then reduced to 20 years.

Kim refused to consider it a setback.

The sentence was later suspended and he left for the US, where he lived until 1985. He was 72 when he was elected president. Expressing his trademark forgiveness and lack of vengeance, Kim immediately sought a pardon for Chun Doo-hwan, the military general who ordered Kim's death in 1979 and was sentenced for mutiny and treason.

Chun was among well-wishers who went to Kim's hospital room in recent days.
But the defining moment of the Kim presidency was his historic meeting with Kim Jong Il in 2000.

That summit, the first between the two Koreas, eased decades of tensions and ushered in an era of unprecedented reconciliation. Families divided for decades held tearful reunions, and South Koreans began touring North Korea's famed scenic spots. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

"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." He watched with dismay as the reconciliation unraveled when a conservative administration took office saying North Korea must abide by its international commitments to disarm before expecting aid.

Kim urged both Koreas, divided by the world's most heavily fortified border, to remember their "painful and tragic" past. "The South and North have never been free from mutual fear and animosity over the past half-century _ not even for a single day," Kim told reporters in January. "When we cooperate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity."

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. Funeral arrangements were expected to be made public Wednesday.