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August 19, 2009

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S. Korea peacemaker Kim dies at 85

FORMER President Kim Dae-jung, who spent years as a dissident under South Korea's military government and later won the Nobel Peace Prize for seeking reconciliation with North Korea, has died. He was 85.

Kim, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia since last month, died shortly after 1:40pm yesterday, said Park Chang-il, chief of Severance Hospital in Seoul. He said Kim suffered respiratory distress, a pulmonary embolism and multiple organ failure.

South Korean leaders, from friends to former foes, had been paying their respects to Kim for days at the hospital.

"We lost a great political leader," 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."

Hundreds held a candlelight memorial service at a makeshift mourning site outside City Hall in Seoul, bowing, burning incense and leaving white chrysanthemums.

"I was filled with great sorrow when I heard former President Kim Dae-jung passed away," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who served as a vice foreign minister in Kim's administration, said as he paid his respects at the hospital.

Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a telegram of condolence, a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Kim built a reputation as a passionate champion of human rights and democracy who fought against South Korea's military government and survived several suspected assassination attempts, including a 1973 abduction in a Tokyo hotel by South Korean agents.

Once president, he was the architect of the "Sunshine Policy" - a novel approach to relations with North Korea that sought to bring the two wartime rivals closer as a way to encourage reconciliation.

Historic summit

His efforts led to an unprecedented thaw in relations with North Korea and culminated in a historic North-South summit - the first on the divided peninsula - in Pyongyang with leader Kim Jong Il in 2000.

His successor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun - who committed suicide three months ago amid a broadening corruption probe focused on the Roh family - maintained the Sunshine Policy. But Kim Dae-jung saw his work unravel when Lee, a conservative, took office in 2008.

But Kim continued to advocate engagement with Pyongyang.

"The South and North have never been free from mutual fear and animosity over the past half-century - not even for a single day," he told reporters in January. "When we cooperate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity."

Kim was born into a farming family in South Korea's southwest when the country was still under Japanese colonial rule.

He went into business after World War II ended Japanese rule, but as South Korea's fledgling government veered toward authoritarianism after the peninsula's war, he resolved to go into politics. After three losing bids, he was elected to the National Assembly in 1961. Days later, Major General Park Chung-hee staged a military coup and dissolved parliament.

Kim ran for the presidency a decade later, nearly defeating Park. The close call prompted Park to tinker with the Constitution to guarantee his rule in the future.

Just weeks after the presidential election, Kim was in a traffic accident he believed was an attempt on his life. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp and sometimes used a cane. After two more unsuccessful runs for the presidency, Kim was elected to the nation's top office in 1997 at the age of 72. He served from 1998 to 2003.


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