SEOUL, South Korea – Former President Kim Dae-jung, who spent years as a dissident under South Korea’s military dictatorship and later won the Nobel Peace Prize for seeking reconciliation with communist North Korea, has died. He was 85.
Kim, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia since last month, died shortly after 1:40 p.m. (0440 GMT) on Tuesday, said Park Chang-il, chief of Severance Hospital in Seoul. He said Kim suffered respiratory distress, a pulmonary embolism and multiple organ failure.
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 evolution from a brutal military dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy and global economic leader.
“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.”
Hundreds held a candlelight memorial service at a makeshift mourning site outside City Hall in Seoul, bowing, burning incense and leaving white chrysanthemums.
“I was filled with great sorrow when I heard former President Kim Dae-jung passed away,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who served as a vice foreign minister in Kim’s administration, said as he paid his respects at the hospital.
Ban said he would do his part for “South-North peacemaking, development and eventually for unification – all of which President Kim Dae-jung always pursued.”
Kim built a reputation as a passionate champion of human rights and democracy who fought against South Korea’s military dictatorships and survived several suspected assassination attempts, including a 1973 abduction in Tokyo hotel by South Korean agents.
Once president, he was the architect of the “Sunshine Policy” – a novel approach to relations with North Korea that sought to bring the two wartime rivals closer 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 – in Pyongyang with leader Kim Jong Il in 2000.
His successor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun – who committed suicide three months ago amid a broadening corruption probe focused on the Roh family – 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.
In response, North Korea cut nearly all ties with the South, suspended several joint projects born of warming ties and threatened to restart its nuclear programs. But Kim continued to advocate engagement with Pyongyang.
“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 in January. “When we co-operate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity.”
On Monday, North Korea announced it would restart some of the joint projects, including the reunions of families divided for decades by the 1950-53 Korean War.
Several dates are given for his birth, but Kim was born into a farming family in South Jeolla province in Korea’s southwest when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule.
Kim went into business after World War II ended Japanese rule, but as South Korea’s fledgling government veered toward authoritarianism after the peninsula’s war, 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. The 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.
In another apparent assassination attempt 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. But the U.S. intervened, sending an American military helicopter flying low over the ship, and the would-be assassins abandoned their plan.
Upon his return to Seoul, Kim was put under house arrest by the Park government and then imprisoned. His release came only after Park’s assassination by his own 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.
Tanks rolled in to suppress the uprising; the official toll was 200 dead but activists say the real count was far higher.
Accusing Kim of fomenting the uprising in his political stronghold, a military tribunal sentenced the opposition leader to death. Washington intervened again, and the sentence was commuted to life and later reduced to 20 years in prison.
A few months later, his sentence was suspended and he left for exile in the U.S., remaining there until 1985.
After two more unsuccessful runs for the presidency, Kim was elected to the nation’s top office in 1997 at the age of 72. He served from 1998 to 2003.
The defining moment of the Kim Dae-jung’s presidency was his historic meeting with North Korea’s 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 honour. “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, Lee Hee-ho, 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 to be announced Wednesday.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jean H. Lee contributed to this report.