Kim Dae-jung, the democracy activist who survived assassination attempts and a death sentence to become South Korea‘s president and sole winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has died. He was 85.
Kim was admitted to the Severance Hospital in Seoul on July 13, 2009, suffering from pneumonia. He died on Tuesday afternoon, according to Choi Kingdegar, a spokesman at the hospital.
Kim won the presidency in 1997 at the height of the Asian financial crisis in South Korea’s first civilian transfer of power. Three years later he traveled to Pyongyang for a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, part of his so-called Sunshine Policy that attempted to defuse tension on the divided peninsula, where 1.7 million troops square off every day.
Engagement with North Korea, a policy extended by Kim Dae Jung’s successor Roh Moo-hyun, failed to prevent a nuclear test by the communist regime in 2006. Tensions flared most recently in April as the North first tested a ballistic missile, then a month later detonated a second nuclear device, triggering United Nations sanctions.
Kim Dae Jung had good intentions when he initiated the Sunshine Policy, but it’s far from having been a success, said Park Joon-young, a professor of political science and international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “What we’ve learned from the past 10 years is that Kim Jong-il’s regime never compromises on anything. It turned out to be ineffective in prompting any changes in North Korea.”
Kim Dae-jung’s political life was a series of setbacks and comebacks. In 1954 he failed in his first bid for a seat in the National Assembly as an independent. Two attempts later in 1961 he won a by-election, only to see parliament shut down by a military coup before he was sworn in.
Kim won the presidency on his fourth attempt, in December 1997. His first year in office was plagued by corporate and banking failures as well as surging unemployment in a nation that had enjoyed almost 20 years of unrestrained growth.
A $57 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund aimed at preventing a debt default, the subsequent economic turnaround and the olive branch he offered North Korea helped bolster Kim’s support with the majority of Koreans.
His popularity peaked in June 2000 when Kim became the first South Korean leader to visit the North. During his stay in Pyongyang he met North Korea’s Kim in a series of televised meetings that raised expectations that the peninsula might be reunited after almost 50 years of division.
“In the summit, I told my counterpart the two of us have responsibilities to the nation and the world,” he said on his return to Seoul. “I have returned with the conviction that, sooner or later, we will become reconciled with each other, cooperate, and finally get reunified.”
Kim was born on Jan. 6, 1924, on the island of Haui off the southern coast, the second son of a sharecropper for a Japanese landowner. He loved his home village so much he took its name, Hugwang, as a pseudonym for life, according to the Kim Dae Jung Presidential Library and Museum.
After finishing fourth grade, Kim moved to the mainland city of Mokpo in southern Jeolla, a poor region that had lagged behind the rest of the nation’s economic growth, and which became the symbol of his fight for increased democracy.
Kim graduated from high school in 1943 and joined a shipping company, working his way up to become its president as well as the owner of a local newspaper.
Political ambitions awakened during Japanese colonial rule blossomed after the 1950-53 Korean War and with the increasingly authoritarian rule adopted by South Korea’s first president, Rhee Syngman.
After his initial political failures, Kim finally entered parliament in 1963 and served as spokesman for the main opposition party until he was appointed its top policy maker in 1968. He gained a reputation as a gifted speaker, setting a record for the longest speech in parliament, according to his presidential library.
In 1971 he was the opposition candidate for president, almost defeating military ruler Park Chung-hee, whom Kim accused of rigging the vote.
That year, Kim was hit by a car in what he said was an attempt on his life by Park’s supporters. He walked with a limp for the remainder of his life.
In August 1973, with South Korea under martial law, Kim was abducted by Korean intelligence agents while living in exile in Tokyo. During the trip back across the sea between Korea and Japan in a small boat, agents held him over the side and threatened to drown him.
Back home, Kim alternated between jail and house arrest until Park was assassinated in October 1979 by the head of the Korean intelligence agency. After a coup, another general- turned-president, Chun Doo Hwan, rearrested Kim and sentenced him to death on charges of attempting to foment an uprising.
Kim was released after 2 1/2 years and allowed to go into exile in the US.
Returning home in 1985, he joined with Kim Young-sam in staging nationwide pro-democracy protests that climaxed in 1987 when the government agreed to adopt democratic reforms and allow direct presidential elections.
Both Kims ran for the highest office in 1987, splitting the vote and allowing rival Roh Tae-woo to win. In 1992, Kim Young-sam threw in his lot with Roh and won the presidency for himself.
Five years later, Kim profited from a split within the ruling party to squeak into office by little more than 1 percent.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2000 for his attempts to bring peace and reunification to the Peninsula divided by the 1950-3 Korean War.
Kim Dae-jung has attempted to overcome more than 50 years of war and hostility between North and South Korea, the Nobel committee said in its statement. “There may now be hope that the Cold War will also come to an end in Korea.”
Still, tensions between North and South Korea climbed to the highest in more than a decade in 2009 as they exchanged military threats after North Korea’s second nuclear detonation in May and missiles tests. Right until his death, Kim Dae-jung urged President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008, to pursue a policy of engagement with North Korea.