Kim Dae-jung, a renowned democracy campaigner who survived assassination attempts and a death sentence to win South Korea’s presidency and the Nobel Peace Prize, died yesterday aged 85.
“He was declared dead at 1:43pm,” a spokesman for Seoul’s Severance Hospital said. “His heart began failing at 1:35pm and stopped minutes later despite our efforts to revive it.”
Kim, who was president from 1998 to 2003, had been admitted on July 13 with pneumonia and related complications.
He held South Korea’s first-ever summit with communist North Korea in 2000 and was awarded the Nobel prize later that year.
“We lost a great political leader today,” South Korean 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.”
The presidential office said it would respect the family’s wishes over whether to organize a state funeral. It said Seoul would not stop North Korea from sending a delegation to the funeral if it wishes.
Past leaders, including the man whose government condemned Kim to death, also paid tribute.
Kim campaigned against the 1961 to 1979 rule of dictator Park Chung-hee and in August 1973 South Korean intelligence agents kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel.
He was about to be dumped in the sea, but intervention by Washington and Tokyo saved his life. In May 1980, during Chun Doo-hwan’s army-backed rule, Kim was thrown into prison on charges of treason. He was sentenced to death by a martial law court but gained a reprieve following strong US pressure.
“I hope former President Kim, who underwent a stormy political life, will rest peacefully in the bosom of God,” Chun told reporters of the devout Catholic.
A wave of mass street protests in 1987 ended decades of army-backed rule, but Kim won the presidency only in 1997 on his fourth attempt.
He took office the following February at the height of the Asian economic crisis, which ravaged South Korea and forced it to seek a US$57 billion bailout from the IMF.
The man once branded as a communist won praise for working with international financial bodies to revive the economy and launch major reforms.
He never wavered on the need for reconciliation with North Korea, even though his policies failed to halt the North’s drive for nuclear weapons and its two atomic tests.
“This is the best way to end the national tragedy and make a reunified motherland,” Kim said in his final speech in office.
In domestic politics, Kim also practiced forgiveness. One of his first acts as president was to pardon Chun, who had been convicted of treason and corruption after leaving office.