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Former President Kim Dae-jung, a giant in South Korea’s shift to democracy who won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to forge a reconciliation with the prickly communist North, died on Tuesday at the age of 85.
Kim, popularly known by his initials “DJ,” died of cardiac arrest brought on by massive organ failure. Staff at Yonsei Severance Hospital that has treated him since July 13, when he was admitted for pneumonia, did not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation to revive him.
“We chose to let the deceased go in peace,” Yonsei hospital chief Park Chang-il told a news conference.
News of his death brought an outpouring of condolences, including from those who disagreed with the liberal leader on how to deal with reclusive North Korea, which has for decades been a destabilizing factor for Asia’s fourth largest economy.
“We lost a great political leader today. His accomplishments and aspirations to achieve democratization and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered by the people,” conservative President Lee Myung-bak said in comments released by his office.
The former political prisoner, once sentenced to death under one of the country’s early military rulers whom he relentlessly opposed, was elected South Korea’s president in December 1997 on his fourth attempt.
It was the first time in the country that power had shifted from a ruling party president to one from the opposition and firmly established democracy in a country that had spent its early years under a succession of autocratic rulers.
Kim was the architect of the “Sunshine Policy” of engaging communist North Korea which led to an unprecedented warming of ties between the foes.
In the culmination of his efforts to improve relations with the North, Kim flew to Pyongyang in June 2000 for a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
The meeting and his idea of prodding the North forward with the promise of incentives and reducing the strain of eventual unification through economic integration won Kim the Nobel prize.
His liberal politics and policy of rapprochement with the North was taken on by his successor Roh Moo-hyun who held a second summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2007.
But in his final year, he watched as voters turned against a decade of liberal policies he had inaugurated by electing the conservative Lee, whose hard line toward the North saw relations plunge back into the freezer.
And in May, Kim’s successor as president, Roh, committed suicide amid a graft probe.
“This year has been especially hard for us as we have lost earlier in the year yet another political leader, former President Roh Moo-hyun. We feel as if we have lost both root and spirit of our democracy,” the opposition Democratic Party said.
Analysts said Kim’s death may help bring the rival Korea’s back to dialogue, especially following conciliatory moves by the North in recent days that included a promise to reopen its border with the South, suggesting to some that tension may be subsiding.
“DJ meant something to them and North Korea is likely to react and move in light of this news,” Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University in Seoul said.
Yang Moo-jin of University of North Korean Studies said Pyongyang will likely send a delegation that could “turn around recent hardened conditions between North and South Korea.”
At home, it was Kim’s life-long struggle against repressive authoritarian leaders that defined him and made his name a household word and inspiration for generations.
A devout Catholic and an inspiring speaker in both Korean and English, he shuffled when he walked due to injuries suffered to his legs in an assassination attempt in the 1970s when a truck rammed his car off a road.
Even as skepticism grew of Pyongyang’s intentions when it defied warnings and conducted its second nuclear test and a series of rocket launches, Kim told Reuters in one of his last interviews he was optimistic the North would eventually disarm.
“Some people say North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, but that is not true,” he said on June 23.