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Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Lee Hee-ho’s Legacy as Democracy Activist, First Lady



Lee Hee-ho, the widow of former president Kim Dae-jung, died on June 10th at the age of 97. Lee lived through turbulent periods of modern Korean history, enduring numerous hardships alongside her husband. Today, we’ll look back on the eventful life of the former first lady, who dreamed of inter-Korean reconciliation and peaceful unification. Here is commentator Lee Jong-hoon. 

Lee Hee-ho was part of the first generation of Korea’s female activists, advocating women’s rights since her school days. After marrying former president Kim Dae-jung, the course of her life changed a lot. She supported her husband, who was a dissident leader, during difficult times of political oppression. Kim regarded his wife as a political comrade. As a living witness to the democratization of South Korea and as first lady, Lee also made great contributions to the promotion of women’s rights. Even after her husband died, Lee visited North Korea in an effort to improve inter-Korean relations

Lee was born to a doctor’s family in 1922. She graduated from Seoul National University and studied in the U.S. After returning home, she served as the secretary-general of the Korean Young Women’s Christian Association to pioneer activities for women’s rights. 

She married Kim Dae-jung in 1962 and supported him throughout his tumultuous political career. She always stood by her husband, who went through great adversity including exile, kidnapping, house arrest, the death penalty and exile again from 1972 to the early 1980s. 

In 2000, she accompanied the president to North Korea for the historic first-ever inter-Korean summit. When former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011, she visited Pyongyang to offer her condolences and also met Kim Jong-un in person.

When Kim Dae-jung passed away in August 2009, North Korea sent a six-member delegation led by Kim Ki-nam, then-secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, to South Korea to attend the funeral. Lee Hee-ho’s trip to North Korea in 2011 was sort of a return visit. Photos showed that she met Kim Jong-un at the time. 

No doubt, her Pyongyang visit contributed to keeping inter-Korean ties afloat. Even during the years of conservative South Korean governments under former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, an inter-Korean summit was considered. Lee is said to have tried hard to facilitate the process, although the summit never materialized. 

When Lee made a two-day visit to North Korea in December of 2011, 12 North Korean officials came all the way to the border town of Gaeseong to greet her and her delegation with the highest level of courtesy. Her visit somewhat eased cross-border ties, which had been frozen since the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and North Korea’s artillery attack on the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong in 2010. Lee visited North Korea again in 2015. 

Lee sent a wreath of flowers and a letter to North Korea in 2014 to mark the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il. The following year, she made a four-day visit to North Korea at the personal invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Indeed, she made great efforts throughout her life to patch up South-North relations and implement the agreement reached at the first inter-Korean summit between her husband Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il in 2000

Lee’s 2015 North Korea visit came amid strained relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. In the North Korean capital, the 93-year-old Lee visited various facilities, including a maternity home and children’s hospital, and delivered children’s hats and medicine. She did not meet the North Korean leader at the time. But given her role in promoting inter-Korean peace, attention was drawn to whether North Korea would send a delegation to South Korea for her funeral. 

As the committee in charge of Lee’s funeral delivered the news of her death to North Korea, the question was how North Korea would respond to it. Some expected that the North would dispatch a delegation to the South but the North has only sent flowers and a condolence letter, not a delegation. 

Some say that if North Korea had sent a delegation, it would have helped break the current deadlock in inter-Korean relations. When North Korean delegates traveled to the South in 2009 for former president Kim Dae-jung’s funeral, they met then-South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and delivered then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s verbal message to Lee. If a high-level North Korean delegation had come to the South this time, it would have delivered leader Kim Jong-un’s letter to President Moon Jae-in. But for now, it seems to be an unlikely scenario. 

Still, speculation abounds over the possibility of an inter-Korean summit, and some analysts predict that North Korea may respond to this issue. 

The North Korean delegation that visited South Korea in 2009 held the first high-level inter-Korean talks under the Lee Myung-bak government and even stayed one day longer to visit the presidential office in Seoul. 

This time around, however, North Korea did not send a delegation to the South over the death of Lee Hee-ho. Rather, leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong delivered flowers and a message of condolence under the leader’s name to South Korea at the truce village of Panmunjom. 

After the death of the former first lady, there seems to be a subtle change in diplomacy surrounding the Korean Peninsula. 

Lee left a will that she would pray in heaven for the peaceful unification of Korea. As if on cue, some positive signs have been perceived recently. U.S. President Donald Trump says he received a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, while speculation has grown that South Korean President Moon Jae-in may hold another summit with Kim Jong-un. The two held three summits last year alone. Their fourth summit, if realized, may hopefully lead to a third summit between Trump and Kim and produce a positive outcome. We’ll have to carefully watch if there will be any breakthrough in inter-Korean ties and North Korea-U.S. relations, as the late former first lady Lee wished until her last minute. 

It is reported that Kim Jong-un sent his letter to Trump. Amid stalled nuclear negotiations between their countries since the failed summit in Hanoi in February, the report spawns speculation that North Korea may again seek dialogue.   

Expectations are also running high for another inter-Korean summit. In an interview in Finland on June 10th, President Moon expressed optimism about the resumption of inter-Korean talks and North Korea-U.S. dialogue as well. 

Although she has passed away, Lee’s ardent wish for a unified Korea seems to be providing much-needed momentum for cross-border reconciliation.

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