|Lee Hee-ho, then first lady of South Korea, delivers a keynote speech during the U.N. Special Session on Children in this May 2002, file photo. Korea Times file|
By Park Ji-won, Kim Yoo-chul
Lee Hee-ho, former President Kim Dae-jung's widow and a long-time fighter for women's rights in South Korea died Tuesday. She was 97.
She died of old age at the Severance Hospital at 11:37 p.m., Monday (June 10), according to the Kim Dae-jung Peace Center. She had been hospitalized due to a worsening health condition since March 20.
Born to a wealthy medical doctor's family in 1922 under Japanese colonial rule, the former first lady was one of the few Korean women who were educated at an advanced educational institute. Specifically, she graduated from Seoul National University, and later earned a master's degree at Scarritt College in the United States in sociology, the peace center said.
After returning from the U.S. in 1958, she was most notable for being among the "first generation of women's rights activists" devoting herself to the movement for democracy in South Korea and to gain equality for women here.
At age 39, Lee married the late President Kim. The two fought against military rule and the authoritarian regimes under dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Their efforts significantly helped advance the country's democracy. She was a key advocate and active supporter of Kim as he suffered severe oppression during military rule. Lee was one of the hidden forces behind Kim achieving the top post.
Lee was the first lady from 1998 to 2003.
Lee was one of the key figures helping Kim outline his ambitious "Sunshine Policy," the core of the engagement-centric North Korean policy pursued by President Moon Jae-in. Even after her husband died a few years ago, Lee was an active voice in helping minorities have a better life.
The former first lady also accompanied the late President Kim during his historic summit with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in the North's capital of Pyongyang in 2000, the first encounter ever between the heads of the two Koreas.
Whether a North Korean delegation will visit the South to pay their respects is unknown, but some observers think this is possible as Lee went to North Korea to offer condolences when Kim Jong-il died in 2011.
"The former first lady Lee was a big adult in our age, given her life-long to the country's democracy and peace on the peninsula. She was a true leader and shared the sorrow and pain over the separation of the Koreas. President Moon will pay his sincere tribute to the late first lady once he returns from his trip to Scandinavia," Noh Young-min, the presidential chief of staff, told reporters, according to Cheong Wa Dae pool reports.
Lee left a final message in which she thanked the people for loving her husband and her while hoping they will live harmoniously together and prayed for the two Koreas' peaceful unification. She also asked the people to use her and her husband's house in Donggyo-dong, Seoul, as a memorial center to honor President Kim Dae-jung, and use the funding from the Nobel Peace Prize for activities to promote his spirit.
Noh and other political heavyweights including Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang and leaders of the major political parties attended Lee's memorial to show their respect for her.
"Lee stood alongside citizens and President Kim Dae-jung so that he could live as a man with conscience while living as a true believer and democrat," President Moon wrote on Twitter, according to Cheong Wa Dae.
She will be buried in the Seoul National Cemetery in Seoul next to the grave of the late President Kim, Friday.
|First lady Lee Hee-ho, right, President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il takHe pose for a photo at the Paekhwawon State Guest House in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this June 13, 2000. Korea Times file|