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Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung Dies

BY Larisa Epatko  August 18, 2009 at 2:30 PM EDT

Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who came to represent the country’s democratization and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile with North Korea, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Kim was being treated for pneumonia since mid-July and died of “heart failure caused by internal organ dysfunctions,” said Park Chang-il, president of Severance Hospital in South Korea, the New York Times reported.

As a pro-democracy opposition lawmaker, Kim gained a reputation as a champion of human rights who fought against South Korea’s military dictatorships.

Following Kim’s election to the National Legislature in 1961, Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee staged a coup and began an 18-year rule, according to the Associated Press.

In 1973, agents from Park’s spy outfit, known as the K.C.I.A., kidnapped Kim from a hotel room in Tokyo, where he was leading an exile movement for democracy in South Korea.

He later said his kidnappers attached a weight to him aboard a boat and were about to throw him into the sea when the U.S. government intervened, the Times reported. Five days later, he was dumped at the gate of his Seoul home and placed under house arrest.

After a disgruntled spy chief assassinated Park in 1979, another general, Chun Doo-hwan, seized power, arresting Kim and other leading dissidents. When people in Kwangju, the central city of Cholla, rose up, the junta sent in tanks and paratroopers. More than 200 protesters were killed, and Kim was sentenced to death on sedition charges, the Times reported.

This time the Reagan administration intervened, and Chun let Kim come to the United States in 1982. Three years later, Kim returned home but was placed under house arrest.

In 1998, Kim was elected president on his fourth run and served until 2003. Under his “sunshine policy” aimed at improving relations with North Korea, the two countries connected roads and railways across their borders and built an industrial park.

His efforts culminated in a historic 2000 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang — the first summit between the two countries. That year, Kim Dae Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his pro-democracy work as well as reconciliation efforts with the North.

“Through his political dedication and persecution, he has come to symbolize South Korea’s democratization,” Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul, told the Times. “He also broke longstanding taboos in South Korea — he led the liberals to the fore of South Korean politics after decades of conservative rule, and he changed North Korea’s status among South Koreans from an enemy to be vilified to someone that can coexist with the South and can be engaged.”

Even toward the end of his life, Kim remained engaged in politics. Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, said on the Aug. 4 NewsHour that Kim met with former President Clinton in Seoul in May and encouraged him to go to North Korea, where he ended up securing the release of two U.S. journalists.

News of Kim’s death brought an outpouring of condolences, including from those who disagreed with his handling of North Korea.

“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 a statement, Reuters reported.

Kim is survived by his wife, Lee Hee-ho, and three sons.