By Kurt Achin
Seoul (RPRN)8/18/2009 —Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has died in Seoul at the age of 85. He had been hospitalized since last month for pneumonia. Mr. Kim was credited with ushering a new era of reconciliation with wartime enemy North Korea. His own life story mirrors South Korea’s tumultuous evolution from dictatorship to democracy.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak issued a statement Tuesday saying the country has lost a “great political leader” whose “aspirations to achieve democratization and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered by the people.”
|Former S. Korean President Kim Dae-jung attends a funeral of former President Roh Moo-hyun in Seoul, S. Korea (File photo – 29 May 2009)|
Friends and close family members were by the former president as he passed away earlier in the day. Mr. Kim had been hospitalized since last month for pneumonia.
The hospital president, Dr. Park Chang-il, says Mr. Kim died of multiple organ failure.
Kim Dae-jung may be best remembered around the world for the groundbreaking photographic images of him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il holding hands during the June 2000 inter-Korean summit.
In a speech at the time, Mr. Kim said he believed strongly in a future in which North and South Korea cooperate, reconcile, and reunify.
The 2000 summit thawed nearly half a century of chilled relations between the two halves of the peninsula, since a 1953 armistice paused their three-year war.
Kim Young-ho, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, says President Kim deserves credit for changing the peninsula’s political climate.
He says Mr. Kim and his government removed the Cold War atmosphere from the Korean peninsula, and created what he calls a post-modern era for the region.
Mr. Kim went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in arranging the meeting, although the achievement would later be tainted by allegations that South Korea gave the North $500 million to agree to it.
Mr. Kim followed up on the summit with what he called the “sunshine” policy of pouring massive amounts of aid and investment into the North while demanding very little in return. North-South contacts expanded dramatically, and hundreds of families that had been separated by the war got a chance to hold brief reunions.
But the sunshine policy, which Mr. Kim’s successor, President Roh Moo-hyun, also followed, failed to prevent North Korea from developing and testing a nuclear weapon. Critics of President Kim’s policy say it failed to bring about any substantive change in the North. Human-rights activists faulted Mr. Kim for his near total silence on systematic human-rights abuses there.
In South Korea, Kim Dae-jung will be remembered as a heroic icon of the democratization movement. He narrowly escaped death in the early 1970s when agents of authoritarian President Park Chung-hee kidnapped him in punishment for his public criticism of the government. He was freed under heavy diplomatic pressure by the United States.
U.S. pressure would also play a role in getting Mr. Kim’s death sentence commuted to a prison term during the presidency of Chun Doo-hwan.
Shim Jae-hoon, who covered Kim Dae-jung’s career for decades as a journalist, before retiring to work as a political consultant, says Mr. Kim skillfully parlayed his personal conflicts with authoritarian leaders into broader political symbolism.
“Kim Dae-Jung’s greatest political capital was his persecution,” said Shim Jae-hoon. “Some say had it not been for persecution under Park, he would have remained a relatively small regional leader.”
After a period of U.S. exile, Mr. Kim won the South Korean presidency in 1997, after previous failed attempts. He is credited with helping South Korea recover from the brink of bankruptcy during the Asian financial crisis.