SEOUL – Kim Dae-jung — who survived assassination attempts and a death sentence during his years as a dissident to become president of South Korea, and whose unflagging efforts to reconcile with communist North Korea earned him the Nobel Peace Prize — died Tuesday, hospital officials said. He was 85.
Kim, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia since last month, died shortly after 1:40 p.m. (0400 GMT), said Lee Sung-man, a spokesman for Severance Hospital in Seoul. The hospital did not cite an exact cause of death.
South Korean leaders, from friends to former foes, had been paying their respects for days at the hospital to a man whose epic career spanned South Korea's political upheaval, from the decades of harsh authoritarian rule to its transformation into a full-fledged democracy.
As a pro-democracy opposition lawmaker, Kim built a reputation as a passionate champion of human rights and democracy who fought against South Korea's military dictatorships.
He survived several suspected assassination attempts, including a dramatic 1973 abduction at a Tokyo hotel, allegedly by South Korean agents.
And as president from 1998-2003, he was architect of the "Sunshine Policy" of reaching out to wartime rival North Korea as a way to encourage reconciliation.
His efforts led to an unprecedented thaw in relations with the North and culminated in a historic North-South summit — the first on the divided peninsula — and a jubilant meeting in Pyongyang with leader Kim Jong Il in 2000.
His successor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, maintained the Sunshine Policy but Kim Dae-jung saw his work unravel with the election of conservative President Lee Myung-bak in 2007, who conditioned aid to the North on the regime's commitment to nuclear disarmament.
North Korea cut off nearly all reconciliation ties last year and suspended most of the joint projects that had sprung up in the wake of warming relations, though it announced its intention this week to restore some of them, including reunions of families divided for decades after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Over the past year, as international tensions rose over Pyongyang's continued nuclear defiance, Kim rallied up until the end for Seoul to find a way to engage the North.
He said in January that Koreans on both sides of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone must be mindful of their "painful and tragic" history and work together to establish peace and security on the Korean peninsula.
"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. "When we cooperate, both Koreas will enjoy peace and economic prosperity."
Kim was born to a middle-class farming family on a small island in South Jeolla Province in Korea's southwest when Korea was still under Japanese colonial rule.
He was schooled in Mokpo, a port city in the southwest, in a region that later became the base of his political support. He went into business after World War II ended Japanese rule.
Kim survived the three-year war that left the Korean peninsula divided, but as South Korea's fledgling government veered toward authoritarianism, he resolved to go into politics.
He won a seat in the National Assembly in 1961. A decade later, he ran for the presidency — and nearly defeated strongman President Park Chung-hee. That close call prompted Park to tinker with the Constitution to guarantee his rule in the future.
Just weeks after the elections, Kim was in a suspicious traffic accident that he believed was an attempt on his life. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp and sometimes used a cane.