Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung dies

The longtime dissident, who survived three assassination attempts and spent years in prison, was 85. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for engaging North Korea.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 today 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 then 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 its 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 Prize, 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, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, 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 made the ironic discovery 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. He was often likened to a prophet scorned in his own land.

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

In his later years, with his hair dyed the artificial dark black of many aging Asian politicians and his skin powdered white, Kim appeared as a distant and forbidding figure. He gave only occasional interviews, pleading for continued dialogue with North Korea.

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 2007 elections brought conservatives back in power.

A much-heralded resort run by South Korea's Hyundai Asan group near North Korea's Mt. Kumgang closed last year, and many businesses pulled out of an industrial park in Kaesong, north of the DMZ. 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, predicts that South Koreans will come to appreciate Kim more, especially when his presidency is stacked up next to the disappointing terms of his successors.

"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 today.

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


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