Kim Dae-jung, 85, Dies; S. Korean Leader Awarded Nobel Peace Prize for 'Sunshine Policy'

By John Burgess
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kim Dae-jung, who overcame kidnapping, prison and a commuted death sentence in a tireless battle for democracy in South Korea and later won his country's presidency and a Nobel Peace Prize, died Aug. 18 in the capital city of Seoul after being hospitalized for pneumonia. He was believed to have been 85.

As president from 1998 to 2003, Mr. Kim reached out to North Korea with a "sunshine policy," flying to its capital for the first North-South summit with communist leader Kim Jong Il. He helped cement young institutions of democracy in South Korea and restore its economy after a 1997 financial collapse.

His final years brought him some frustration. Despite the summit's pledges of detente, tensions rose as the North detonated two nuclear test bombs and the engagement policy was abandoned. Mr. Kim's own standing suffered with disclosure of secret payments to the North before the summit and the corruption convictions of two of his sons.

Throughout his life, Mr. Kim pursued his goals with a single-mindedness that could startle enemies and friends alike. Over and over, he surmounted the insurmountable, only to be undone by arrest or military coup, then picked himself up and went back for more. "The people must be treated as masters and must act like masters," he said.

As a dissident, Mr. Kim was aided at particular danger points by the U.S. government, which had strong influence in Seoul because of the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the Cold War flashpoint country. U.S. officials worked to shield Mr. Kim from military officers who viewed him as a dangerous, disloyal radical and wanted him dead.

Once the tables were turned and he entered South Korea's presidential mansion, known as the Blue House, he displayed a remarkable ability to make peace with former adversaries. Among the parade of South Korean dignitaries who called on him during his final illness in Seoul's Severance Hospital was retired general and former president Chun Doo-hwan, whose military court had sentenced him to death in 1980.

Mr. Kim was born Jan. 6, 1924, his presidential library's Web site says. Other records have shown his birth date as Dec. 3, 1925, with speculation that the change was made to avoid the Japanese draft as a young man. At the time, Korea was ruled by Japan as a colony. The son of farmers on an island off the Korean peninsula's southern coast, he obtained a high school diploma on the mainland and built a career in the local shipping industry around the time of independence in 1945.

In 1946, Mr. Kim married Cha Yong-ae and later had two sons with her. She died in 1960. In 1962, he married Lee Hee-ho, with whom he had one more son. Lee and his sons survive him.

According to Mr. Kim's presidential library, he joined and quit two political organizations in the 1940s after detecting left-leaning tendencies in them. Early in the 1950-53 Korean War, it said, he was captured by communist forces but escaped.

After the war, he was baptized a Roman Catholic, joining an influential Christian minority that has long been a force for change in Korean society. Mr. Kim would say later that his faith nurtured him during long periods of peril and incarceration.

"Let us persevere, then, praying always that God will help us to have the strength to love and forgive our enemies," he wrote a son from prison, according to an official account. "Let us together, in this way, become the loving victors."

Mr. Kim entered politics in the 1950s, making three unsuccessful runs for office. In 1961, he finally won a seat in the National Assembly but lost it three days after the vote when Park Chung-hee, an army general who would become his first military nemesis, staged a coup d'etat and dissolved the legislative body.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company