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Kim Dae-jung dies at 85; former South Korean president and Nobel laureate

Kim was the country's most famous dissident when he became president in 1998. In 2000, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his sunshine policy of engaging North Korea.

August 19, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident who survived three assassination attempts, one death sentence and six years in prison to become South Korea's president and its first Nobel laureate, died Tuesday in Seoul after a long bout of pneumonia. He was 85.

South Korea's president from 1998 to 2003, Kim is best known for the moment on June 13, 2000, when he stepped onto the tarmac at Pyongyang's airport with arms outstretched to embrace North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

That landmark meeting, which was supposed to end 50 years of enmity between the Koreas, won Kim the Nobel Peace Prize. But Kim lived just long enough to see his "sunshine policy" unraveling as a result of North Korea's continued nuclear ambitions and the installation last year of a conservative president in South Korea.

The meeting in Pyongyang was only one of many dramatic moments in a most eventful life.

There was the time in 1973 that Kim found himself on a boat -- blindfolded and manacled, his limbs encased in concrete -- about to be tossed overboard by assassins presumably working for South Korea's military dictatorship. And there was his return from exile in the United States in 1985, when he arrived at Seoul's airport flanked by U.S. congressmen, only to be immediately seized and placed under house arrest.

After four decades as the country's most famous dissident, Kim (often known by his nickname D.J. to distinguish him from other Kims in public life) became president in 1998. By daring to meet with Kim Jong Il, he established what many think is an irreversible course of rapprochement between the estranged Koreas. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his sunshine policy of engaging North Korea and his lifelong struggle for democratization.

But his final years were spent in frustration. He was disappointed by Kim Jong Il's failure to reciprocate for the Pyongyang summit with a visit to Seoul, as well as by the George W. Bush administration's skeptical attitude toward his efforts.

Just five months after winning the Nobel, Kim was humiliated during a White House visit when newly inaugurated President Bush was publicly dismissive of the idea that one could negotiate with the North Koreans.

"Although I understand fully why the North Korean leadership is not very likable, it is in the interests of global peace to pursue the policy of dialogue," Kim later recalled telling Bush.

Kim also had to spend his later years fending off a series of political scandals. His youngest son was arrested on charges of taking bribes from a lobbyist. The revelation that Kim's aides had secretly ordered the transfer of $500 million to North Korea shortly before the meeting with Kim Jong Il led to charges that he had bought the summit and hence the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2005, investigators discovered that this icon of democracy and human rights had allowed illegal wiretapping during his presidency at a pace unmatched even by South Korea's former military dictators.

Like former dissidents who became president -- Lech Walesa of Poland or Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic -- Kim's image abroad was always better than at home.

"The Koreans forgot that he was a champion of democracy and saw him just as another political boss," said Michael Breen, a Seoul-based biographer of Kim Jong Il who has been researching a biography of Kim Dae-jung.

Kim was succeeded as South Korea's president by Roh Moo-hyun, a similarly left-leaning politician who tried to continue the rapprochement with Pyongyang. But the 2007 elections brought conservatives back in power.

North Korea's two nuclear tests, one in 2006 and a more recent one in May, have been viewed by many in South Korea as proof that Kim's policies of conciliation were a failure.

Hahm Sung-deuk, a presidential scholar at Korea University in Seoul, predicted that South Koreans will come to appreciate Kim more.

"His legacy will grow with time. Even if he made some mistakes, people appreciate his contributions to democracy and his handling of the economy," Hahm said Tuesday.

Kim was born on tiny Haui island off the southwestern coast of South Korea, in Cholla province. He has said that his date of birth was Jan. 6, 1924, although various later dates are often cited in official records -- discrepancies that opponents used against him to claim he was dishonest. The most likely explanation was that his family was trying to keep him out of the draft during the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation period.

When he was 7 or 8, Kim was sent to study the Chinese classics with a village scholar. His academic abilities proved phenomenal, and the family moved to the mainland port city of Mokpo so that he could further his education. He became involved in anti-Japanese activities, at one point joining an underground group of young communists who read banned Marxist texts.

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